January 16, 2018 by Sam Dodge
The team that couldn’t stop Princeton may be finding its defensive footing. Larger tests loom. (Galen Central)
LOS ANGELES – USC hit rock bottom defensively against Washington.
The Huskies – now the second-worst offense in the conference – shot 67 percent that late December night, including a blistering 74 percent from two, to outpace the Trojans 88-81.
“It’s hard to do that,” Andy Enfield said afterwards, “even if no one’s guarding you.”
Through six games, the tone is far different out of Galen Center, as Enfield’s crew of long-limbed leapers now rank No. 3 defensively per KenPom in Pac-12 play. The question is:
Is this sustainable?
Enfield thinks so.
“Last year, De’Anthony (Melton) made up for a lot of mistakes,” he said. “He blocked shots, challenged shots from the weak side and filled several gaps.
“It’s taken awhile, but everyone is starting – except for a bad 10 minutes against Stanford – to make up for his loss.”
There are several moments where they pass the eye test.
Coming out of halftime of the Colorado game, Enfield made them practice five-on-four defense, rather than the typical shot warmup. That same game, Chimezie Metu imitated Dikembe Mutumbo, emphatically swatting six shots.
Here’s an unrelated video of Dikembe Mutumbo.
The numbers tell a more complicated story. First, the positives.
On Sunday night, USC harassed Utah – the second-best shooting team in conference play – to 30 percent overall in the first half. On New Year’s Eve, they limited the best one – Washington State – to 39 percent.
Since Washington, they’ve gobbled up 89 turnovers to lead the Pac-12. This isn’t even opponent dependent, as their steal-rate – 25 percent — directly correlates to their turnovers forced.
Basically, USC will take the ball from you a lot, whether you like it or not.
Lastly, for a team that presses the tempo – only 15 seconds for every offensive possession – points are at a premium. The last five teams mustered only 67 points on average.
The top tier of the Pac-12 – Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and…Stanford* – all cede well over 70. Only a half-game out of first, USC appears to be congealing defensively faster than their peers.
Here’s the rub. Big guys still give them fits.
The Washington game saw unusually good shooting from the Huskies, sure, but the frontcourt tandem of Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright said, “Olé,” to the 6-foot-8 bull that was Noah Dickerson.
Dickerson tallied 17 points on eight shots in the paint. His presence in the middle required more USC defenders to compensate, leaving the perimeter mercilessly unattended.
Stanford’s own bull Reid Travis bashed his way to 29 points on 12 shots, adding nine from the charity stripe as Metu and Nick Rakocevic racked up four fouls each.
This leads us back to the original question. While USC thrives against perimeter-oriented teams, can they beat back Travis when he invades Galen Center on Jan. 24, or Thomas Welch in Westwood the first week of February?
It’s one thing to stop the Washington State’s, California’s or Colorado’s of the world. Those offenses sit at No. 9, No. 12 and No. 10, respectively.
It’s another to prove it against the best of the west.
For Enfield, a former assistant on numerous elite defense at Florida State, he has time to batten down the hatches. Oregon had their wings clipped by graduation, and Oregon State had their buckteeth punched in by powerhouses such as Long Beach and Kent State.
With Travis, Welch and a pair of sharp-shooting foes from the desert on the horizon, questions will soon be answered.
*Stanford, the team that lost to awful teams in California, Portland State and Eastern Washington, is tied for first in the Pac-12. This conference is weird, man.