By Rich Ruben
In a game full of oddities, the one constant was the play of Onyeka Okongwu, who scored 27 on 12-14 from the field and 3-4 from the line. He led the Trojans to a 65-56 win in the PAC 12 opener in Pullman in front of a sparse crowd. Big O also grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked 2 shots and altered several others in a dominating performance. The Trojans are now 12-2 on the season, and next up are the Huskies on Sunday night in Seattle.
Jonah Mathews was the only other Trojan in double figures with 10 points and 4 assists Though he was only 1-7 from the field, he made 7-9 from the line. Nick Rakocevic had a poor offensive performance, but he pulled down ten rebounds. He missed his only shot from three, leaving him 7-11 for the season. Elijah Weaver played a much better game than his last several, making 4-5 from the field for 8 points and he also had 4 boards, and Isaiah Mobley played very well in the first half in which he scored all 7 of his points.
The Trojan strategy was clear from the beginning; get the ball inside to Big O and Nick for shots over the undersized Cougars. WSU couldn’t contain Big O who showed how special he is after not playing Sunday night due to a sprained ankle.
What We Learned About The Trojans
– SC reversed key trends, at least for one night, by making 75% of their 24 free throws, and sinking them down the stretch. The Trojans also got off to an unusual fast start, leading 20-7 early, as the Cougs began the game 2-19 from the field. But the other season long problem remained. Troy could not put the Cougars away. After the fast start, it was not unexpected that WSU would make a run at some point, but when they did, the Trojans could not pull away again. SC led only by 4 at the half, and the Cougars kept within striking range throughout the second half.
– WSU took an amazing 34 more shots than the Trojans, 79 -45, but made one less field goal. That disparity in shots taken and made is startling. The Cougs shot a dismal 27.8% from the field and were 6-28 from three, 22.4%. The Trojans made 23-45 shots, but only took 7 threes, and made only 1; can’t remember another game in which SC took only 7 three point shots. Although the Trojans’ shooting numbers were very good, they are also somewhat deceiving, as 12 of the 23 made field goals were by Big O.
– There were several reasons that the Cougs got so many more shots. SC committed 20 turnovers, which makes 39 TOs in the last two games. WSU has been getting into the passing lanes all season and creating havoc, and they had success against the Trojans. If this is not corrected very quickly, it could doom the Trojans in close games. Seven of the Trojans TOs were offensive charges, as the Cougs packed their defense to stop drives and dishes. The Trojans were fortunate that WSU scored only 13 points off the TOs. On the other hand, WSU took good care of the ball and committed only 6 TOs.
– The much smaller Cougars also grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, which led to second and third shots. Fortunately they missed a lot of these opportunities. SC out rebounded the Cougs 40-35, but the margin should have been bigger. SC scored only 5 second chance points on 6 offensive rebounds.
– Two SC baskets were waived off because first Nick and later Big O touched or grabbed the rim on made shots by teammates. Neither play was necessary or helped the shots go in. Other made baskets were lost because of offensive charges.
– A lot of SC possessions ended with free throws, which limited field goal attempts. SC made 18-24 from the line.
– Jonah Mathews was matched most of the night against the Cougs preseason all conference selection CJ Elleby. Jonah gave up at least three inches, but forced Elleby into many very tough shots. Elleby would up 3-22 from the field, and 1-8 from three. Andy decided to play Jonah on Elleby instead of bigger guards Elijah Weaver or Daniel Utomi because he believes Jonah is the Trojans’ best outside defender and one of the better, if not the best, defender in the league. The Cougars top scorer on the night was Isaac Bonton with 18 points, but he took 26 shots and made only 7. The Trojan guards played great defense all night.
– The one Cougar who had a good game was 6’6” forward Tony Miller, who made 7-11 from the field for 15 points, most on shots near the basket. He also had 11 rebounds. It appeared the Trojans concentrated heavily on Elleby and Bunton, and Miller was left open too often inside.
– The freshmen point guards struggled. They both tried to do too much, driving into traffic and trying to make passes which weren’t there. As a team, SC had only 11 assists. Andy inserted Quinton Adlesh to play the point late, and the Trojans didn’t turn the ball over down the stretch. This is the second game in a row in which Ethan Anderson has struggled, after having a very good start to the season.
– In several of the last games, SC has limited its fouls, and WSU only shot 10 free throws. It may be harder to defend without fouling when the Trojans play teams with more size.
– Big O is so special in many ways, including his demeanor. He never changes his expression and doesn’t get rattled. He plays hard every second on both ends, though he appears to play effortlessly, and he practices the same way. He has great hands and his ability to get off the floor very quickly allows him to make plays at both ends.
– With the last two wins, the Trojans NET ranking is now 57, and moving in the right direction. However, Washington’s loss on Thursday hurts SC. The Huskies NET ballooned to 74 from 41. That means that an SC win on Sunday will not improve SC’s ranking as much as it would have, and a loss will hurt more.
The Trojans could not have picked a better place for their first PAC 12 road game; playing one of the conference’s weaker teams in a nearly empty arena.
I don’t think the Trojans have had a better freshman player than Big O since Harold Miner. DeMar DeRozan had a solid season, but really only played at a very high level in the last third of the season. I think OJ Mayo is the only other player who is in this conversation, but Mayo was a high volume shooter. He averaged just over 20 per game, but did not impact the game on the boards or on defense. Several players told me during per season practices that Onyeka is “special”, and they are right.