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Grading the USC basketball season

By Rich Ruben

The basketball season ended abruptly on the morning of March 12 for the USC Trojans, who had been scheduled to play Arizona in a few hours in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament. But the post season was ended for health reasons, as the Pac-12 conference and then the NCAA decided to cancel their tournaments in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. As a result, USC and 67 other teams didn’t get the opportunity to play for the NCAA title or to see how far they could advance. Eight Pac-12 teams left Las Vegas without being able to compete for a conference championship.

Every team played the full schedule of 31 regular season games, and some of the smaller conference tournaments were played before the season was shut down. This column will evaluate how the Trojans as a team and each individual player performed this year. These postseason evaluations are not based on how well the team and individual player performed in a vacuum, but instead compare the performances to preseason expectations. Every player will receive a grade:  “A” for a player who exceeded expectations, “B” for a player who met expectations, and “C” for a player who fell short of expectations. Anyone who has different opinions is invited to post your comments.

The Trojans Team Met Or Exceeded Expectations

In the preseason poll, USC was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, behind Oregon, Arizona, Washington and Colorado. The Trojans finished in a tie for third with ASU, and ahead of Arizona, Washington and Colorado. USC was 22-9 on the season and 11-7 in conference games. In October, I wrote that I thought the Trojans would win 21-22 regular season games, reach at least the conference semi finals, and win a first round game in the NCAA Tournament. If the Trojans had beaten Arizona in Las Vegas, they would have played in the semi finals, though the Wildcats were a four point favorite.

I also reported before the preseason that head coach Andy Enfield thought he had a very deep team with a number of good shooters. I suggested that Onyeka Okongwu was underrated even though he was a five-star recruit and ranked between 20-25 nationally in his freshman class.  And I said that Ethan Anderson was better than expected and the two grad transfers, Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh, were under the media’s radar and both would be major contributors for the Trojans.

The Trojans won 22 games, but not in the manner Andy expected. It turned out that the team was not as deep as he anticipated; Chuck O’Bannon left in December after barely playing due to an injury, and Max Agbonkpolo and Quinton Adlesh did not contribute as much as expected.

Instead the Trojans won with defense. They ranked ninth nationally in defensive field goal percentage at 44.6%, and 70th out of approximately 350 teams in points allowed at 66 points per game. USC held their opponents to under 40% in 19 of their 31 games. They held their last 18 opponents to 37.5 % from the field and their last 20 opponents to 28.7% from three. On offense, USC was tied for No. 202 in points per game at 70.3.

The Trojans met most of my predictions and expectations. One miss was that Quintin did not have the impact I expected. 

Evaluation of Quinton Adlesh

Q only scored 55 points this season, and most of his scoring was in pre conference games. He had 29 points in the 18 conference games. He was very good shooter from behind the three point line at Columbia, and he has a very smooth shot. In the Pac-12, however, he struggled to get shots off against bigger and quicker opponents. Before the season he said that he could fill in at point guard if needed. When he was needed to play point in late season games when freshman backup point guard Kyle Sturdivant missed seven games after his father passed away, Q struggled at the point. Andy said multiple times during the season that Q was a very good perimeter defender, but he had problems against quick players and bigger guards.  Andy and some of the SC players gave Q very high marks for his leadership, maturity and experience, and he was named co-captain.  Everyone agreed that he was an important part of the team’s success.

Letter Grade – C

Evaluation of Max Agbonkpolo

Max was the fifth rated high school player in California, and two of the four ahead of him were fellow Trojans, Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley. The coaches said that Max has great potential and could be a better player than Big O or Isaiah in the long run.

This season Max looked unsure of himself, and had defensive problems. He told me before the season that he played wing in high school and was use to guarding smaller and quicker players, but he often lost his man on defense. He knows he needs to get stronger and work on his defense in the off-season. Although he was a very good scorer from beyond the three point arc in high school, his shooting percentage this season was very low due in part to playing only sporadically. He had only 61 points on the season.

Letter Grade – C

Evaluation of Ethan Anderson

Ethan was the surprise of pre season practice, and played very well in the first half of the year. He became the starting point guard from the first game. He was not as effective in conference games, though he had his moments. He scored in double figures in 5 games and had 5 or more assists in 10 games. He was the Trojans’ primary ball handler and had the sixth most assists in the conference and had the sixth most nationally among freshmen.

Ethan averaged 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.5 turnovers. He shot 38% from the field and from three, and 55% from the line. He tried to force too many shots on drives thru the lane when there wasn’t a good shot available, which reminded me of Jordan MacLaughlin’s freshman season. Ethan also needs to improve from the line; the primary ball handler needs to make free throws in close games.

Ethan signed with the Trojans late in the Spring. He originally committed to UNLV, but after a coaching change, he opened up his recruitment and the Trojans grabbed him. SC needed another point guard when Derryck Thornton decided to transfer last Spring. Ethan is listed at 6’1” and 210 pounds. He might not be that tall, but he is much more athletic than he appears and can really jump. The Trojans ran a play for him in several games where he makes back door cut and receives a lob pass. Not many 6’1” guards can make that play.

Letter Grade – A

Evaluation of Drake London

Drake missed the first half of the season and all preseason practices because of football. He is listed at 6’5” and 205 pounds. He looks very big on the football field, but rather ordinary on a basketball court.  For the first few weeks after he joined the basketball team he was learning the offensive and defensive systems and plays. He then missed a couple of weeks with mono and later another week with the virus which impacted several Trojans on the mountain road trip. We never got to see Drake really play. In limited minutes in two games he didn’t score, though he made a corner three which was disallowed because he had one foot out of bounds. We’ll have to wait until next season to see whether he can contribute.

Letter Grade – Incomplete

Evaluation of Jonah Mathews

Jonah was Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 in the preseason, and wound up Second-Team All Conference and he was included on the All Conference Defensive team. He averaged 13.4 points and was the team’s second leading scorer. He made 39% of his shots, 38% from three, and 74% from the line. Jonah scored in double figures in 23 games. He often stepped up when most needed. In the final three crucial games, he scored 14 points against Arizona, 23 against ASU, and 19 against UCLA.

Jonah’s only issue is his low field goal percentage. He was good when he drove to the basket, and was very good from three, but he struggled with his mid range shots.  All season Andy said Jonah was the Trojans’ best defender, and by mid season Andy called Jonah the best defensive guard in the conference.

He was the clear team leader, and a great representative for USC basketball. He will always be remembered for the buzzer beater three against UCLA in the last game of the season which denied the Bruins a share of the conference title and vaulted the Trojans into a tie for third and a first round conference bye.

Letter Grade – A-

Evaluation of Isaiah Mobley

Isaiah came to USC as a McDonalds’ All-American and a five star recruit ranked higher than Big O. He was preseason All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention and was one of 20 players on the preseason Karl Malone watch list for the best power forward in the nation.

Isaiah did not meet those high expectations. He broke his foot over the summer which set back his development.  He was unable to play on the summer European trip. The foot continued to bother him well into the season. He started the first few games when the Trojans started all three big men and started two more games late in the year when Big O was in concussion protocol.  He averaged 6.2 points, and 5.3 rebounds. He made 41% from the field, 33% from three and 52% from the line, and had a high of 11 rebounds against Washington State. 

In the last dozen games Isaiah played much more physically and better interior defense. He has good form on his outside shot, and should be a scorer from inside and outside next year. He needs to improve at the line; almost all of his misses are long and bounce off the heel.

Letter Grade – C+

Evaluation of Onyeka Okongwu

Big O came into the season as an underrated five star player, if there is such a thing. He did not make any preseason all conference teams. He had a dominating freshman season and is projected to be a first round pick in the NBA draft; many analysts are predicting he will be a lottery pick and possible a top five selection.

Big O was a dominating presence on both ends of the court. He is very quick off his feet, which helps his rebounding and shot blocking. He averaged a team high of 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. It appeared that he blocked a number of shots which were not counted in the official tally. He set an SC freshman record for blocks in a season and tied the school record for blocks with 8 in his first game. O made 61% of his shots and 72% from the line. He was the best rim protector the Trojans have had in many years, altering shots and forcing the ball to go back outside many times a game. He had 11 double doubles, and 92 offensive rebounds. Onyeka was on the All-Pac-12 Conference first team.

O was the focus of every defense, often drawing double teams and occasionally triple teams. He had the best freshman season of any Trojan since at least OJ Mayo, and in many respects he had a better season than Mayo. Unlike Mayo, Big O never tried to win games himself. He holds the USC freshman record for blocks and field goal percentage in a season, and is in the national freshman top ten in many categories. He also has the fifth most points per game of any freshman at SC.

Letter Grade – A+

Evaluation of Nick Rakocevic

Nick was a preseason All Conference selection and was on the preseason watch list for the top center in the country. Nick didn’t have that type of season, but he was an important contributor. He switched positions in order for the more athletic Big O to play the five spot. When they were both on the court, Nick played the four on defense and sometimes on offense. When he teamed with Isaiah, Nick also played the four on defense because the staff believed he was quicker and better able to extend his defense.

Nick averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. He made 46% of his shots, 43% of his threes, and 63% from the line. His numbers were down from last year when he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds. This was primarily because the two freshman big men contributed more than Bennie Boatwright who was the only other big man the year before. Nick had three double doubles, and was conference player of the week for the third time in his career. The only Trojans with more player of the week awards are Wayne Carlander with 4 and Harold Miner with 7.

Nick had several big moments this season, including a late tip in for the win over Utah at Galen and a dominating first half against UCLA at Pauley when a few of his teammates were struggling to get going offensively. He leaves SC with the second most rebounds in school history, and this year he did much better in keeping his frustration under check and reducing flagrant fouls called against him.

Letter Grade – B

Evaluation of Kyle Sturdivant

During fall camp, Kyle lost the battle for the starting point guard spot. Due to senior depth at guard and missing the last 7 games, his minutes were limited. For the season he only scored 43 points.

Andy has talked about the possibility of playing both Ethan and Kyle at the same time next year. This might look similar to when Julian Jacobs and Jordan MacLaughlin played together and shared ball handling responsibility.  Kyle may also play off guard; he showed in practice that can shoot from outside, though he didn’t take many shots this season.

The coaching staff believes that Kyle has the ability to be a major contributor and a very good player.

Letter Grade – C

Evaluation of Daniel Utomi

Daniel came to USC after three solid seasons at Akron. The media largely ignored his signing with the Trojans but people quickly took notice when he made 5 threes in the exhibition win over Villanova.

Daniel started the last half of the season, and averaged about 10 points in his starts. For the season he averaged 8.2 points and almost 4 rebounds. He shot 41% from the field, 34% from three and 74% from the line. 

Daniel seemed to gain confidence as the season wore on and he was a much better scorer in the second half of the season. He was a three point threat, and at 6’6” and 225 pounds, he was able to post up smaller defenders. He was an important part of the Trojans’ run in PAC 12 play.

Letter Grade – A-

Evaluation of Elijah Weaver

Elijah had a solid freshman season a year ago and a jump in performance was anticipated for this season. Unfortunately he didn’t experience the hoped for improvement. He started in the first half of the season, and then gave way to Daniel Utomi. Elijah played better off the bench. The staff tried to use him as a ball handler early in the season, but he is much better playing off the ball.

Elijah had a very big play in the comeback win over Stanford. USC trailed by 5 with 15 seconds to play.  Stanford had the ball, and two inbounds passes were stolen. Down three, Jonah stole the ball and passed to Elijah who took an off balance contested three point shot with his body moving to the side and away from the basket. He made the shot which sent the game to overtime and an eventual Trojan win. He also played a big part in the Trojans’ 56-52 win over Utah in which he gave SC it’s first lead with 7 minutes left on a driving layup and finished with 14 points.   

One area in which Elijah has improved is his ability to drive to the rim and get difficult shots up and in. He releases the ball from near his shoulder on outside shots, which looks awkward and generally means he is generally limited to uncontested shots. He does not elevate on three point shots, but when he is open he makes a good percentage. Over the season Elijah had 9 games in which he scored in double figures. He averaged 6.6 points and shot 41% from the field, 34% from three and 55% from the line. He is one of several Trojans who need to improve his free throw shooting.

Letter Grade – B-