January 4, 2017 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
Sitting at 14-1 overall entering the second week of conference play, it’s been a tremendous start for USC Basketball in Andy Enfield’s fourth season at the helm. Many expected a drop off after several key departures from last season’s NCAA tournament team. Most notably, Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic declared for the NBA draft, only to go undrafted. So far, however, the team has surprisingly (at least to most people) improved, at least record wise. How have they done it? Here are my quick takes on the hot start for the Trojans:
-Three freshmen (De’Anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews, and Nick Rakocevic) have all made substantial contributions all season.
Melton literally does it all. He is fifth on the team in scoring (9.9), tied for second in rebounding (5.5), second in assists (46), third in blocks (17), and first in steals (26). He doesn’t shoot the long ball a lot, but has converted 10 of his 26 attempts (38.5), including some big ones late in games. Melton is mature beyond his years and his on-ball defense is spectacular by any standard, especially considering he’s a freshman.
After starting out extremely cold from three-point range, Mathews has started to live up to the hype of being a sniper from distance. His percentage (32.7) still doesn’t look great, but consider this. In his last seven games, Mathews is 13-for-31 (41.9 percent) from outside the arc. Expect him to stay hot. That was his reputation coming in, he is now clearly playing with more confidence, and everything about his game has improved since the poor start.
Rakocevic might be the most surprising freshman of all. We didn’t know much about him coming into the season, in part because the Chicago native did not commit until April. If Jovanovic hadn’t left, there’s a good chance Rakocevic is not on this team. Thank goodness he is. He is averaging 4.3 rebounds in just 16.1 minutes and better yet, he leads the team with 32 offensive boards. Why? Rakocevic plays with a constant motor and because of his limited minutes, he knows he can play at max effort when he’s out there. His role has increased with the absence of injured Bennie Boatwright, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
-USC has learned how to win close games down the stretch
This may surprise people who haven’t followed the team closely yet this season, but eight of USC’s 14 wins have come by eight points or less. A negative person might look at that and say USC is due for some close losses. I choose to look on the bright side. That kind of adversity is necessary and helps you grow as a team. This is a very young group. The more confidence that they can build throughout the season will only lead to good things down the road. The phrase “teams need to learn how to win” is cliché, but true. This team now believes it can win close games down the stretch and that’s a good thing. They also have clutch players. Jordan McLaughlin’s layup to knock off Wyoming in Las Vegas was brilliant. Melton’s three-pointers against Wyoming and Texas A&M proved huge. And Mathews’s 26-point performance against Wyoming gave him the confidence to finally feel like he belongs at this level.
-The common take lately has been that USC hadn’t “played anyone” until they got blown out at Oregon last weekend. That is just false.
Was Oregon the best team they’ve played this season? Most definitely. However, just because the Trojans hadn’t played a ranked team (which by the way, means nothing at this point in the season), doesn’t mean that they haven’t beaten good teams. Let’s look at four teams in particular. First, Texas A&M. They made the Sweet 16 last year and despite losing several key seniors, still should finish near the top of the SEC again this season. In fairness, they are off to a rocky 0-2 start in conference play. However, they lost by four to Arizona and seven to UCLA. Solid team. Second, SMU. They won 25 games last year and surely would have made the tournament if they were eligible. They are off to a 12-3 start. Third, BYU. They are 11-4 and have one of the best big men in the country in Eric Mika, who is averaging 20.2 points per game. Fourth, Wyoming. They had won seven straight prior to losing to SC in overtime in Vegas. They currently sit at 11-4. Was it an extremely challenging non-conference slate? No, but to say USC hadn’t played anybody until the Oregon game is wrong.
-Jordan McLaughlin is becoming a big time player.
J-Mac struggled to adjust to the full-time point guard role at the beginning of the season after Julian Jacobs departed, but he is rounding into it quite nicely now. He’s second on the team in scoring at 14.1, leads with five assists per game, and has dramatically improved at the free throw line (83.3 percent). That’s important because he has shot the most free throws on the team thus far. It’s a tough role and he plays heavy minutes (44 more than the next closest player this season), but McLaughlin seems to want the ball in clutch moments and seems to make the right decisions most of the time.
-USC is not as explosive as last season, but they are better overall because of their defense.
McLaughlin doesn’t push the ball like Jacobs did, but few can. He certainly had his bad moments, however, no one can question Jacobs’ athleticism. The defensive effort for USC this season has been markedly better. Last year, they averaged 80.5 points per game and shot 46 percent from the floor. This year? 80.9 points per game and 45.3 percent. The difference is that they are allowing 70.6 points, compared to 74.6 last season and allowing 39.5 percent shooting, compared to 41.7 percent last season. They have played more zone, in part out of necessity because they have gone to a smaller lineup on most nights without Bennie Boatwright. However, the length that USC brings to the table at all positions makes it tough on opponents on a nightly basis.
-The number one key for USC the rest of the way is getting better on the defensive boards.
Want an astonishing stat? The Trojans have allowed 56 offensive rebounds in their last four games. That is unacceptable and I don’t think Andy Enfield would disagree. It is key to everything USC does to improve dramatically in that area. For reference, the Trojans allowed eight offensive boards against Providence in their NCAA Tournament loss last season. Allowing 14 per game, as they have the last four, won’t cut it. Boatwright’s return will help, but USC needs all hands on deck right now on the boards. It will help them start their fast break better, eliminate second chance points for the opposition, and make their already solid defense that much better. A good defensive possession must end with a defensive rebound.
-How Bennie Boatwright performs when he returns will be a major key.
You have to feel for the sophomore forward. He has battled several injuries on and off since the summer. Every time it seems like he will be back and starts to get into a flow, another injury hampers him and he has to miss more time. The Trojans were lucky his MCL injury wasn’t more serious and season ending, but Boatwright will need to stay on the court if USC wants to reach its highest potential this season. He is their best player in my opinion, but without a doubt the toughest player for opponents to game plan against. He scored in double figures in 12 of USC’s 18 conference games last season as a freshman. He hit multiple three-pointers in 10 of 18 Pac-12 contests. And he’s 6-10. Boatwright is just a very unique player, gives the team energy, and the Trojans run their offense through him when he’s out there. They need him back and playing well as soon as possible, hopefully in time for the Arizona schools at home in a couple weeks.
-Finishing in the top four in the Pac-12 should be the goal for USC.
I realize that’s ambitious, but Andy Enfield hardly shies away from challenges in his life. And Boatwright’s return will have to be a huge part of that. It will be extremely difficult to crack the top three, with three final four contenders likely taking those top spots (Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona). After that, however, it’s wide open. Fourth place should be the goal, which would earn USC a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas this March.
-BONUS TAKE – If everyone returns, the Trojans are a Final Four contender next season.
Also very ambitious, but hear me out. Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright are legitimate NBA prospects. De’Anthony Melton and Elijah Stewart might be as well. Others could emerge. Then, you consider that Andy Enfield has already secured commitments from two top 100 players in Charles O’Bannon, Jr. and Jordan Usher. They are now reportedly after big Brandon McCoy, who is rated #6 nationally by ESPN. On top of that, McLaughlin and Stewart will be seniors, and Melton and Mathews should make big jumps between their freshman and sophomore campaigns. If this group sticks together, it could be an extremely fun season at Galen Center. For now, though, let’s enjoy this season and see where it takes us.