By Rich Ruben
There is a lot of anticipation and excitement as the 2019-2020 is about to tip-off. The Trojans begin a three game home stand on Tuesday, November 5 against Florida A&M. There are some tough non conference opponents later in November and December, and the Pac 12 looks to be much stronger than in the last few years. The Trojans will have plenty of chances to rack up the quality wins the NCAA selection committee looks for.
At the beginning of pre season practice I thought this season and the upcoming off season may determine whether Andy Enfield can lead the Trojan program into the upper ranks of college basketball, and I still believe this is the case. The goal for Andy and his program should be to become a conference title contender, ranked in the top 25, and in the NCAA tournament every year.
Andy often says that the 87 wins over the last four seasons is the most in any four year period in school history. This win total includes a school record 26 wins in 2017. But a look behind the numbers isn’t as impressive. The 2016 team lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, in 2017 the Trojans won an NCAA play in game and won again in the first round of the tournament. In 2018, in a very controversial decision, SC wasn’t selected for the tournament field, and last year the team finished one game under .500. In total, two NCAA wins and one NIT win in those four years.
To move up in the college basketball world this year, several things need to happen. The Trojans’ seven new players (five freshmen and two grad transfers) need to collectively have a big season. Based on the Villanova exhibition, the available statistics from the Trojans narrow win over Santa Clara in a closed exhibition last Saturday, and the limited practice time I have seen, I think this group is capable of meeting this test. Second, the staff needs to build on this year’s Top 5-7 recruiting class and repeat it for the 2020 class. The Trojans have a commitment from five star big man Evan Mobley, and are in on several other very highly regarded recruits. The staff needs to seal the deal with some of these players. And third, most if not all of the eight players eligible to return need to return next year.
Preseason Rankings Don’t Matter; Quality Wins Are Crucial
In the AP’s preseason poll, the Trojans are not ranked and received only two votes. Villanova is ranked No 10. It will be interesting to see where the Trojans are slotted in the next poll after the first week of games. The Trojan’s first two opponents will not provide much opportunity to move up. The question is whether the voters will consider the impressive exhibition win over Nova. Before the preseason poll, the voters hadn’t seen anyone play; the preseason rankings are based on pedigree, info from coaches and conference media, evaluation of returning players, and attempts to predict the impact of freshmen, transfers and redshirts. It’s all very unscientific in early November.
The 2017 team finished second in the conference and in the PAC 12 Tournament. Counting tournament wins they won 14 conference games. Yet the Trojans didn’t get an NCAA bid, while ASU with 8 conference wins and finishing tied for eighth place in the conference was one of the last teams in the tournament field. The exclusion of the Trojans was roundly criticized by college basketball analysts. The Trojans were one of four number one seeds in the NIT, but the players didn’t have their hearts in it, star Chimezie Metu sat out the NIT games to avoid injury, and SC lost in the second round.
How did this happen? Simply, ASU beat Kansas and Kansas State in non conference games and beat the Trojans in their only meeting in Tempe, while the Trojans lost all of their major non conference games. The fact that ASU had twice as many “bad losses” in conference play didn’t appear to matter.
This year’s PAC 12 conference is much stronger and will provide more opportunities for quality wins in conference. The Trojans also play some quality non conference teams, and they need to win some of those games. Troy plays at Nevada on Nov 16, and though the Wolfpack lost almost all of their key players from last season, this is a chance to beat a team on the road which has been recently highly ranked. The Trojans host Temple on Nov 22. Even though the Owls begin the season unranked, they are a basketball name, and this is a key game.
Over Thanksgiving, the Trojans travel to the Orlando Invitational. Included in the field are 8th ranked Maryland, Marquette (which received the fourth most votes among teams outside the AP top 25), Harvard (which received 24 votes in the poll) and Texas A&M and TCU, who are both unranked but have high profile coaches and have had recent success. The matchups depend on who wins in each round of the tourney.
The final two non conference games which provide significant opportunities are a game at TCU on Dec 6 (the Trojans may play the Frogs twice) and a game at Staples Center on Dec 21 against 24th ranked LSU. The Trojans play 11 true road games out of the 31 regular season games. Nine are conference games. The Trojans need to win half or more of the road games, and a few against the better teams on their road schedule.
How Does the PAC 12 Race Stack Up?
In the preseason conference media poll, the Trojans were picked fifth, behind Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Arizona. College basketball analysts are projecting 5-7 teams from the Pac 12 to make the NCAA tournament, and the Trojans should be in that group. The Trojans return senior Nick Rakocevic, who is a preseason first team all conference selection and averaged 14.7 points and 9.7 boards per game last year. Senior shooting guard Jonah Mathews, who was an honorable mention preseason pick and averaged 12.6 points per game, also returns. They were the second and third leading scorers last year.
Three of the four teams picked by the media ahead of the Trojans return far less proven talent. Oregon returns super senior point guard Payton Pritchard and his great leadership and 12.9 points per game and sophomore guard Will Richardson who averaged 6.0. Washington returns junior guard Nahziah Carter and his 8.1 points per game, and no one else who averaged over 2.8. Arizona senior center Chase Jeter averaged 10.9 returns, but no one else who averaged more than 61/2 pointsv Like the Trojans, these three teams will rely heavily on freshmen and other newcomers. Washington brought in two five star big men and Oregon one, and the Ducks added some very good transfers. Arizona recruited two five star guards.
Colorado stands out – the Buffs return almost all of their key players, including standout guards Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright IV, who both averaged over 13 points. The team with the most questions in this top group is the Huskies; last year’s senior class was the heart of their team in all areas over the last few seasons.
The Trojans’ success will depend heavily on new players, just like some of the other preseason conference favorites. The conference media has not yet seen the new players on any team, and it is difficult at this point to sort out which team will wind up on top. But the Trojans should be in the hunt for a good seed in the conference tournament, and are a legitimate conference threat.
The Keys for the Trojans
To start, Troy needs to avoid injuries to key players. Last year’s season disappointed in large part due to injuries and missed games from Bennie Boatright and Kevin Porter, Jr. Combo guard Elijah Weaver also began his freshman season working his way back from injury. That Trojan team had less depth than this year, especially after Jordan Usher was dismissed from the team in December.
The Trojans were a pretty good defensive team last year. This year they should be better. The interior defense with freshmen Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley, teamed with Nick, should be much improved. And they added two more good outside man to man defenders in grad transfer Quinton Adlesh and freshman Ethan Anderson. In the Villanova exhibition, SC showcased it’s athleticism by playing a very tough switching man to man defense, and held a good shooting Wildcats team to around 25% from three and well under 40% overall. With their depth and speed, the Trojans should be able to press effectively at times, and switch to zone when needed. And they stopped the Nova fast break cold. To have the season they want, the Trojans will need to be a good to elite defensive team.
Other areas in which the team needs to improve over a year ago are on the boards and at the free throw line. Both were weaknesses last year. The two big freshmen will have a major impact on rebounding on both ends, and everyone on this team has the potential to shoot 70-75% or better from the line.
I expect Andy to make an effort to use all eleven eligible players in the early games, to continue to evaluate which rotations work and determine who is ready to contribute right away. From the Villanova game and what I have been able to see in practices, the three players who still have something to prove are freshman point guard Kyle Sturdivant, freshman wing Max Agbonkpolo, and sophomore guard Chuck O’Bannon. From the rotation against Villanova, it looks like Kyle is behind sophomore Weaver fellow freshman Ethan Anderson right now. But from small glimpses, I think he can play and contribute. Max seems to behind Chuck as a reserve big guard; I was told that Chuck had a very good scrimmage the week before Nova and he had 10 rebounds against Santa Clara. He is a far more determined and disciplined player Than he has appeared in the past I have not seen too much yet from Max, and I think he needs to show in the early games how much he can contribute this year. There is no question he is talented and can shoot, but not every freshman is ready right away.
In the Santa Clara exhibition, the Trojans tried many different combinations. Nick played only ten minutes and Elijah didn’t play at all. The freshmen scored 56 of the Trojans 72 points, led by Onyeka’s 17, Mobley’s 15, and Anderson’s 10.
On offense, the Trojans will need to shoot well enough to create space for Onyeka and Nick inside. SC has the shooters, including Isaiah Mobley, who can score from inside and outside. If he goes out to 10-15 feet, he will be a tough cover and often be shooting over much smaller players. Nick is a good high and low post passer, and Onyeka is the Trojans’ best player and scoring option. Defenses will key on him, and the Trojans will need to create ways to get the ball into him. Jonah, Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh are all proven high percentage three point shooters, and Elijah Weaver is much improved over last year. I think shooting guard is Elijah’s natural position, though he’ll start the season at the point to allow the staff to get their best five players on the court, but the lineup and rotation will likely change as the season goes on. From what I’ve seen, the only knock on Elijah‘s outside shot is that the release point is very low.
The Trojans will also need to shoot well to beat zones. Washington exclusively plays the very tough Syracuse zone, under former long time Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, and other teams will likely play zone defenses to slow Onyeka and Troy’s inside game. To beat good zones, it comes back to ball movement and outside shooting to loosen up defenses and open the inside.
Reasonable Expectations for This Season
The Trojans have a few players who come into this season somewhat underrated. It is hard to say that a top 20 recruit and two time California Mr Basketball is underrated, but I think that maybe the case with Oneyka. His teammates describe him as “special “ and a “freak” He was not picked on the Pac 12 media all conference team, even though a few other freshmen bigs are listed. I think he will have a big season, and may be a one and done.
Ethan Anderson was an under the radar recruit, but he was very good in the Nova game and apparently against Santa Clara. He has a look in his eyes that says he is both very confident and completely focused. After watching him play, and talking to him last week, it is clear to me that he is intense and a natural leader, all of which leads me to believe he was seriously underrated and will have a much bigger impact this season than many expected.
When the Trojans added Daniel and Quinton as grad transfers, it didn’t create much national attention, but it should have. Both will have significant impacts this season. They both are very good three point shooters, Quinton is a great man defender, and Daniel has a big body and can go inside with authority and play forward if Andy decides to go with a small lineup at times.
I think it is realistic for the Trojans to win 21-22 of their 31 regular season games, make the conference tournament semi- finals, and make the NCAA round of 32. There is potential to do better, and even challenge the school record of 26 wins, which includes post season games. But none of this is a given, and there are enough unanswered questions as the season begins that the Trojans could fall short. To achieve or better these projections, the Trojans will need to achieve or exceed most or all of the keys listed above.
Trojan fans get ready! This will be a fun team to watch. Trojan students and fans can give the team a significant boost in close games at Galen if they show up and are loud enough to raise SC’s home court advantage. A good home court advantage can contribute to an extra win or two. I can’t wait for this season to start.