January 5, 2017 by Jacob Freedman
There’s no place like home for USC Basketball (15-1, 2-1 in Pac-12), who forced 21 turnovers en route to a 72-56 win over the visiting Stanford Cardinal on Thursday night.
After gritting out a win in Corvallis, the 25th-ranked Trojans’ undefeated season fell flat against the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night. A matchup against a Stanford team without its best player ended up being the perfect bounce-back opportunity.
Playing in front of a Galen Center crowd still riding high from an epic Rose Bowl win, USC used a 10-2 run midway through the second half to push their lead to 48-34 in what had been a single-digit showdown. In a sloppy game in which the teams combined for 39 turnovers, Chimezie Metu shook off his 1-of-12 outing in Eugene to finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the year. “I’m being more of a leader out there,” Metu said on playing his part in the Trojans’ 15-1 start despite Bennie Boatwright playing only four full games. “I’m in more of a scoring role.”
As goes Jordan McLaughlin, so will USC’s success in Pac-12 play until Boatwright returns. With the rest of the team shooting 26 percent in the opening half, the junior went 5-of-5, including a full-court driving layup at the halftime buzzer, to pace all scorers with 11. McLaughlin ended up leading all scorers with 15 points, and tossed in six assists and two steals.
Thrust into the team leader role with the departure of Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, McLaughlin is averaging a career high 14.1 points per game despite taking the fewest shots per game in his career.
Despite his polished offensive game, Bennie Boatwright’s absence due to an MCL injury is hurting the Trojans more on defense. Although Metu is good for one or two eye-opening blocks per game and can man the paint no matter who is on the court alongside him, the cast around him still has work to do.
Nick Rakocevic is running into the same foul woes that plunged Metu and Boatwright as freshmen, which often sends USC into a four-guard lineup. The results weren’t pretty in the opening half, as 20 of the Cardinal’s 28 points came down low. And this was without the 6-foot-8 Reid Travis, who ranks fifth in the Pac-12 at 9.6 rebounds per game. Enfield said in the postgame press conference that Boatwright will begin practicing in two weeks, which means a return in time for UCLA on January 25 is up in the air. USC’s medical and coaching staff want Boatwright at 100 percent before he comes back, but his return still can’t come soon enough.
“We have to play a lot of different lineups with foul trouble and inexperience,” added Enfield on adjusting to Boatwright’s absence. “When you have a key player out this long, everyone gets their chance but we have to mix and match.”
On The Other Hand…
Melton and Mathews are continuing to make strides on defense, as the freshmen duo are becoming USC’s guard equivalent to what the Metu-Boatwright tandem were in 2015-16. “Coach Enfield’s a defensive guy. He said that if you play defense, you’ll play,” added Mathews, who also chipped in 10 points off the bench.
Remember that excruciating NCAA tournament loss against Providence, where two crucial missed free throws down the stretch doomed the Trojans? The Trojans apparently do. USC is shooting 74.4 percent this year from the charity stripe, and at a 82.5 percent clip through their first three Pac-12 games.
Metu’s improvement is the most significant. The sophomore is up to 77 percent on the year after hitting barely half of free throws last season. McLaughlin has also seen a significant uptick so far, shooting 84 percent from the line. “You just need to keep improving as an individual,” Enfield said on the reason behind the improvement. “It’s certainly helped our team win tight games this year.”
USC’s resolve at the line will surely be tested on the road in conference play, but the early reviews are an encouraging sign for the Trojans’ late-game mettle.
Thursday night marked Andy Enfield’s 100th win as a NCAA coach. Enfield has compiled a 59-55 record at USC midway through his fourth season, and is 100-83 overall when including his two seasons at Florida Gulf Coast.
A 10-5 (1-2) Cal squad heads to the Galen Center Sunday night after falling 71-61 against UCLA. The Golden Bears’ star forward Ivan Rabb will provide a hefty challenge for Metu, as the sophomore (and likely lottery pick) is averaging 15.3 points and 11 rebounds per contest.