December 27, 2017 by Sam Dodge
LOS ANGELES — What a difference two months make.
Prior to opening the 2017-2018 season, the USC Trojans had their highest expectations in over a decade.
They returned practically everyone from a team on the doorstep of their first Sweet 16 in a decade, losing by four to Baylor in Tulsa, Okla.
They ranked No. 10 in the AP poll for the first time since Gerald Ford was president.
Despite retaining star forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, as well as adding former five-star Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, FBI-recruiting snafus, injuries and defensive ineptitude see USC with four losses and unranked.
On Nov. 8, assistant coach Tony Bland faced indictment from a federal grand jury on bribery charges. In the official allegations, Bland received $13,000 from two financial advisors, Christian Dawkins and Munish Sood, to influence his players towards their financial services.
While the “difficult, very challenging and emotional situation,” as described by head coach Andy Enfield, acted as a distraction, the more immediate effect was the loss of starting point guard De’Anthony Melton.
Melton is currently ineligible due to connections to the FBI investigation.
This forced Jordan McLaughlin, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, into over 35 minutes a game of action. While he averages nearly eight assists a game, facilitating the nation’s No. 13 offense per Ken Pomeroy, the lack of depth behind him sans Melton diminishes his defense.
“De’Anthony Melton means a lot to this team,” Enfield said after USC lost 85-83 to Oklahoma on Dec. 8. “We don’t win 26 games last year without him.”
Also, at 6-foot-4, Melton provides the disruptive size necessary for the top of USC’s 2-3 zone, which McLaughlin simply doesn’t have. He snagged 69 steals last year to lead the Pac-12 in that department.
Exacerbating the backcourt depth problems is the injury to the aforementioned Thornton.
After a promising debut season for Duke in 2015-16 with 7.1 points a game, he left the Texas A&M game early on Nov. 26.
While his production dipped to 3.6 points a contest, he averaged double digit minutes. Without the breathers, McLaughlin took the brunt of the minutes. While you can’t blame just one player for the whole defense, look at the numbers before and after Thornton’s injury.
Over five games, USC allowed just 66.8 a game. Outside of uncharacteristically scorching shooting from Vanderbilt in a 93-89 shootout victory for the Trojans in overtime, no one shot better than 45 percent. Three-point defense was solid, as well.
After that, the defense ceded 77 points a game, most embarrassingly a 103-point bloodletting against a bad Princeton team. Four teams tallied more than 80. Teams are averaging 45 percent from the field, and averaging nearly 40 percent from three.
“We have problems getting crucial stops,” Enfield said in a Dec. 27 Pac-12 teleconference, “when we need it.”
Teams like Syracuse run the 2-3 zone to perfection due to lengthy backcourts that force bad threes. With Melton, USC had the length and depth necessary,
With only McLaughlin, let’s just say they depend on his strong offense to survive.
Yes, November and December were full of doom and gloom for the Guys of Galen.
Momentum, however, might finally be on their side.
After the humiliating loss to Princeton, USC ripped off three straight wins in Hawaii to take the Diamond Head Classic Tournament title.
After an 84-53 rout of lowly Akron, USC won two track meets against dangerous mid-major squads in Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State.
MTSU upset No. 2 seed Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA tournament, and No. 5 seed Minnesota in 2017. Behind Bennie Boatwright’s 23 points, including 12 of 16 free throws, USC beat the defending Conference USA champs 89-84 in the semifinal.
New Mexico State, meanwhile, owns two big scalps so far by travelling to Chicago to beat Illinois on Dec. 16 and topping No. 6 Miami (Fla.) in the Diamond Head semifinals. Boatwright erupted for 33 to lead USC to a 77-72 title win.
Enfield credited a healthy Boatwright, and recent injury luck, for the current surge.
“We expect to be fully healthy heading into conference play,” he said. “That’s what we’ve needed for a month now.”
Enfield stated that Thornton will be back for the conference opener versus Washington on Dec. 29. Sophomore guard Jonah Mathews, a long-range sniper, also recovered from a sprained right ankle.
Although Melton remains ineligible, USC may have its full arsenal just in time.
2017-2018 Resume as of Dec. 27
No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 12 Oklahoma, @SMU
CHANCES AT SIGNATURE RESUME WINS
2x vs. Oregon, 2x vs. UCLA, @ No. 17 Arizona, @ No. 3 Arizona State