By Rich Ruben
In a season in which every game has heightened importance due to the uncertainty of how many games any team will be able to play, USC turned in a lackluster and uninspiring performance in losing to Colorado. If the Trojans had played this poorly on Tuesday in their first game back after a three week Covid hiatus no one would have been surprised. Instead the Trojans played very well in easily defeating Santa Clara. Forty eight hours later the Trojans looked like a team that had been away from the court for three weeks.
Before the tip it appeared this would be a matchup between Colorado’s speed and quickness and USC’s size and interior play, but the game didn’t meet these expectations, at least not for the Trojans. The Buffs were much quicker than USC throughout the game and they also outplayed the Trojans inside. After the game Coach Andy Enfield said the Trojans’ energy and effort level was fine, but watching the game it didn’t appear that way. The Trojans’ man and zone defenses both allowed too many open looks especially in the first half and the Buffs also out hustled and beat up the taller Trojans inside. The Colorado front line got too many offensive rebounds and follow shots and they also forced USC’s big men into too many bad shots.
At times the Trojans seemed to lack fight and effort. A three point buzzer beater put Colorado up by 11 at the half. The lead expanded to 15 before the Trojans made a big run in the middle of the second half and closed to within 2, mostly riding three point shots from Tajh Eaddy, Max Agbonkpolo and Noah Baumann. USC couldn’t sustain their offensive momentum and ultimately lost 72-62.
There Were A Few Positives
Tajh Eaddy had a very good game. He made four of his five threes and finished 5-11 from the field and 2-2 from the line for 16 points. He added 5 assists and had only one turnover. Enfield complimented Tajh and added that when Tajh picked up his second foul in the first half he looked at Ethan Anderson and thought he would have loved to replaced Tajh with Ethan. Drew Peterson said that “Tajh played his butt off but the rest of the team has to help him more.”
Another positive for USC was that Isaiah Mobley scored 7 of the team’s first 12 points. On the flip side he scored only 2 more points in the rest of the game.
A third positive was the comeback mid way in the second half. The Trojans played much stronger defense in cutting the lead to 2, controlled the boards and converted open shots. Unfortunately they couldn’t sustain this burst and the game ended much like it began.
Finally, Enfield pointed out that Tajh played McKinley Wright pretty even. Wright had 17 points on 7-13 shooting along with 4 boards, 4 assists and 3 steals. Before the game Enfield and his staff would have taken this production from Wright and expected to win comfortably. But with no other Trojan having a good game, Wright and the Buffs got the big road win.
The Rest Of The Trojans Struggled
Where to start in addressing the problems?
The smaller Buffs had 4 offensive rebounds in the first 6 minutes. The made 5 of their first 8 threes and quickly jumped to a lead. The Trojans played both man and zone in the first half but it didn’t seem to matter. The second half began the same way. On the Trojans’ first three second half possessions they had 2 turnovers and an offensive foul.
The final offensive stats were not one sided. USC made 23-60 shots and the Buffs 25-60. USC made one more three on two more attempts.
The real problem was in the paint. The Trojans had only 1 more offensive rebound and 2 fewer total boards than the smaller Buffs. Points in the paint were 24-22 in favor of Colorado.
The Trojans won’t win a lot of games when their front court doesn’t dominate inside. Evan Mobley played 37 minutes and was 5-14 from the field, 2-5 from the line and had 7 boards and 4 turnovers. At the half he had only one rebound. Enfield said after the game: “I’ll take some of the blame for Evan’s play. I played him too many minutes.” It’s great that Enfield doesn’t throw his players under the bus, but Evan did not play well early in the game or when he was rested after halftime. The three USC bigs combined for 11-29 from the field with 9 turnovers and were out hustled and out played inside by Colorado. In the first half Chevez Goodwin made one of six shots from deep inside. He played harder than the other bigs but didn’t have more success.
The most surprising thing to Enfield was how many easy shots USC missed. Drew Peterson noted that Colorado came out with a lot of energy, implying that the Trojans did not. Drew acknowledged that he has to play better and so do a few other guys. “We can’t have lapses.”
The Trojans Didn’t Play At A High Level At Either End
Coming into the game only Cal Baptist had made over 37% of its shots against the Trojans. Colorado made 41.7%, which would have been fine if the Trojans had their usual success on offense. USC came into the game shooting 49.2% from the field and averaging 81 points. In their last 78 games in which they held the opposition to under 70 points the Trojans were 74-4. They gave up 72 to Colorado on a night when they needed a better performance on at least one end of the court.
The Trojans need to be far more aggressive inside. They only shot 10 free throws, which is a reflection of settling for jump shots and being out worked on the boards. In their first six games they averaged 25 1/2 free throws.
Although it is only one game, the loss makes a victory over Utah on Saturday a near must win; this team is probably not good enough to climb out of an 0-2 start, especially when no one knows how many conference games will actually be played. The Utes had an opportunity to tie or beat UCLA in the final seconds at Pauley on Thursday but fell 2 points short. They are not a pushover
Enfield shortened his bench in this game, using only eight players. Ethan Anderson did not dress for the game and Boubacar Coulibaly, Josh Morgan and Reese Waters didn’t play. When the staff looks at the game film they may conclude they made a mistake in not playing either Boubacar or Josh. Although neither is a significant factor on offense at this point in their career, one of them might have provided a spark on defense or on the boards on a night when the three man rotation struggled.
In the last ten or fifteen years college basketball talking heads have constantly pushed their belief that the game has become guard driven; that a team must have elite guard play to be successful in the Tournament. Even when Ethan returns the Trojan backcourt is not elite. I’m not ready to give up on this team which is built to dominate inside or suggest that the Trojans can’t have a big year. That said, it’s certain that if the Trojan bigs play passively and don’t take it to other teams inside the Trojans will be only mediocre.