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Midseason Review as the Trojans are set to take on the Bruins

By Rich Ruben

SC is 12-3 at the midpoint of the regular season, with 16 conference games left to play, beginning with the game at Pauley Pavilion Saturday night. In considering the first half of the season, is it possible to conclude both that the overall record is good and also that the team and individual play is disappointing and inconsistent?  I think this is the case. Given that the team has only three returning players, and has five true freshman, two grad transfers, plus recently added freshman Drake London, the coaching staff would have likely been happy with this record before the season started. A couple of weeks ago, Andy said that he thought the 11-2 non conference record was excellent given the schedule they played.

Looking at the first half of the season today, I’m not sure which is the real Trojan team, the one which has won 12 games, or the one which shot 20% from the field in their last game at Washington and scored only 40 points. This is the question which will be answered over the next two months.

The Positives In the First 15 games

The Trojans have some good wins, though they don’t yet have a big or signature win. They are 3-1 in true road games, beating Nevada, TCU and WSU on the road, and losing in the last game to a good Washington team. They have also beaten an LSU team which was picked to finish third in the SEC, and Harvard which is a solid squad and picked to win the Ivy League. SC has held on to win  some close games, particularly against LSU and TCU.

The team defense has been good overall, and in many games very good. Having a true rim protector in Big O has made a huge difference, and so has the length of Nick and Isaiah inside. Jonah has anchored the perimeter defense, often drawing the opponent’s best wing or guard. He and the rest of the Trojan guards completely shut down WSU’s CJ Elleby last week, who had been averaging over 20 points per outing. Even in the UW loss, the Huskies were only 2-15 from three.

The defense hasn’t always been solid outside, as Marquette’s Markus Howard and his 51 points showed, but his performance is the outlier. SC’s opponents’ overall shooting percentage and percentage from three is down several percent from last year.

The Trojans have rarely played anything other than their base switching man to man defense. They switch on all screens, and teams try to get Nick or Isaiah defending a guard outside. They have generally done a pretty good job staying with the quicker guards or forcing the driver into Big O or Nick on the inside.

After the blowout loss to Marquette in the Orlando Tournament, the Trojans quickly got back on track the next night and beat Harvard. We will learn Saturday night if they successfully put the UW disaster behind them after six days between games.

Big O’s play has been better than many expected. He was rated between the 20th- 25th best freshman in the class, but it was obvious from pre season practices that there are not 20 better freshmen this season. In most mock drafts, he is currently slotted between 10-15 in the first round. He has been consistently excellent on defense; he gets off his feet very quickly, and is able to block or alter many shots. He also is athletic enough that when he doesn’t get a block on one side of the rim, he can still get the rebound on the other side.

O is also the team’s best and most consistent scoring option, averaging 18 points and shooting 60%. Opponents’ defensive plans center on denying him the ball down low, and double teaming him if he gets the ball. He has very quick spin moves and can make. shots with either hand or can overpower many defensive players. O is not a finished offensive player yet, and if teammates can’t get him the ball or aren’t hitting shots to take some of the pressure off him, he can be contained.

Ethan Anderson was the biggest surprise thru the first ten games. He is deceptively athletic, has good court vision and was making very good decisions with the ball. Early on he was averaging close to 5 assists per turnover. Although he is not yet a good outside shooter, his two threes in the second half against LSU were huge. Lately, though, his game has unraveled. His turnovers are way up, and his assists way down. He has made some bad decisions with the ball, deciding early to drive to the basket no matter what, and has been called for charges, gotten shots blocked or lost the ball. Some of his plays in the lane in the last few games remind me of Jordan McLaughlin’s similar struggles as a freshman, though Jordan had far few other reliable teammates that year.

There is a lot of doom and gloom among Trojan fans after the 32 point loss to the Huskies. Most of that can be quickly reversed with a win against the Bruins. Starting the conference season 2-1 on the road would be very good. And after Saturday, 9 of the remaining 15 games are at home.

SC’s NET ranking fell to 71 after the Washington loss. The Trojans will have a lot of opportunities to improve their ranking. Arizona is now ranked 13, and the Trojans play them twice. Oregon is 15; SC plays the Oregon schools only once on the road. Stanford is improbably ranked 16; the Trojans only play the Cardinal at home this season. Colorado is no 29, and SC plays the mountain schools home and away. UW is now 41, and they come to Galen in mid February.  Utah is 45, and OSU is 53. ASU is one spot behind the Trojans at 72. 

Problem Areas And Concerns

Let’s start with free throw shooting, which has been bad all season. The team is making only 65% of its free throws. That low number is primarily due to Nick, Isaiah and Elijah shooting 60% or below. All three have good form and should be much better.

Sticking with shooting problems, the team is making only 43% of their field goals, and 33% from three. Only the three big men are making over 45% of their shots from the floor, and no one is making over 35% from three except Nick who is 7-12. Andy has said from the beginning of practice that this team has a lot of shooters, but we haven’t seen that except for a few game run where Jonah and Daniel were making threes. If the guards don’t consistently shoot better, I don’t think the Trojans can win enough games to make the tournament. Teams will be working hard to contain O, and the guards need to step up. SC only made 13 shots from the field against the Huskies.

Turnovers have become a huge problem lately. The Trojans have committed 60 in the last three games. Although SC won two of the three, the turnovers made the games much closer than they should have been. Many of the TOs have been committed by the freshmen, but the whole team is struggling.

Nick was a preseason all conference selection, and Jonah and Isaiah were honorable mention. None of the three have met expectations. Nick played very well in some early games and was Pac 12 player of the week, but his shooting percentage has been falling lately. He is still rebounding at a high level, and has mostly done a good job of keeping his emotions under control. Jonah has not been the consistent outside scoring threat that the team needs. He recently had a good four game stretch, but did not shoot well on the Washington trip. However, his defense has been consistently solid. And Isaiah has not yet become the force on either end that we expected. He is very athletic and skilled, but has trouble finishing inside against stronger opponents.

The outside shooting from Elijah, Daniel, Quinton, and Max has not met expectations. They have all made some shots, and Elijah and Daniel have shot well in a few games, but none of them has been a consistent threat. Max has not have a lot of opportunities, and the other three have generally played good defense, but more scoring is needed.

Expectations For The Second Half Of The Season

The Trojans still have the opportunity for a very good season, but they need to play better and more consistently. They have not yet played a complete game. Washington’s size caused the Trojans’ big men to play very tentatively. The three bigs took 40 of the team’s  65 shots, but they only made 8 buckets. Arizona and Oregon also have several skilled and athletic bigs, and the Trojans will have to be much better to beat any of these three teams.

The Washington zone also was a big problem. The Trojans should expect to see more zone defenses, and need to attack better. The fact that the Trojans got the ball inside enough for the three bigs to take 40 shots against Washington is encouraging, but they have to finish those opportunities.

This team has not yet played as well as anticipated and is not a tournament team today. They have the potential and as discussed above will have the opportunities to play their way into the tournament, but they need to step it up starting now.

Preview of UCLA Game

The Trojans play the Bruins at 7:00 pm, Saturday, January 11. The Bruins are struggling under first year coach Mick Cronin. After finishing 17-16 last year, they are currently 8-7, including losses to Hofstra, BYU and Cal State Fullerton. Although they have not been blown out like the Trojan have in their losses to Marquette and UW, they lost to BYU by 15 and Notre Dame by 14. Cronin has won 2/3 of his games over 16 seasons, so better times may be in the Bruins’ future, but likely not this year.

The Bruins have some individually talented players, but no one on the level of Big O. They have some size, particularly in 6’9” forward Cody Riley and 6’9” guard Chris Smith, but they do not play big. SC will have a significant advantage inside.

The Bruins are having more shooting problems than the Trojans. As a team, they make 44% of their shots, and only 31% from three and 68% from the line. Their opponents are making 42% from the field and 37% from three.

Cronin is known as a defense first coach who demands maximum effort. He has a young team with only two seniors (forward Alex Olesinski and guard Prince Ali) and one junior (Chris Smith) along with two red shirt sophomores. Smith is the only Bruin averaging double figures at 12 ppg, and Smith, Riley, and freshman guard Jaime Jaquez are the only players shooting 45% from the field. Freshman guard Jack Kyman made 7 threes in their upset over Washington, and has now made 13-30 for the season. Before that game no one was consistently shooting the three ball. 

Prediction

This is a game the Trojans should win. Assuming they are able to put the Washington debacle behind them, SC has more talent, especially in the front court. The Bruins have not been drawing well at home, and even against the Trojans, Pauley will not be as loud and intimidating as in many years past. Expect the Bruins to play some zone to see how the Trojans handle it.

I anticipate SC will come out with a lot of energy and play one of their better games. The way the schedule breaks down, this is a very important game, if not quite a must win. SC had won six in a row before the UW loss, and I expect them to start a new winning streak on Saturday.