By Rich Ruben
A week and a half ago the Trojans were surging. After beating Arizona State, they stood 18-3 on the year and 12-2 in league play. They played poorly against Arizona and lost by nine to a good but not outstanding team on February 20. They bounced back two days later and seemingly put the poor performance behind them with a solid 14-point win over a good Oregon team earlier this week.
The Trojans lost on Thursday at Colorado by 18 in the team’s worst performance of the season and needed to play well at Utah to have a reasonable chance at the regular season crown and to set themselves up for post season play. Instead USC played a poor first half against the Utes and followed with their worst twenty minutes of the season on both ends in the second half and were beaten by a very mediocre Utah team 71-61.
In the second half the Utes made 17-29 (58%) shots while USC was only 9-28 (32%). The Utes were successful on 7-9 second half threes versus 2-7 for the Trojans. Coach Enfield saw what we all saw. “The second half was probably our worst half of the season. The starting five played poorly at both ends.”
He continued with his analysis of the team’s play. “We got off to a decent start and the bench came in and played poorly for a few minutes and we went back to the starters and they turned in their worst performance of the season.” Obviously frustrated while trying not to throw individual players under the bus he continued: some of the players who are normally good players didn’t play well. Many times guys didn’t share the ball, made poor decisions and played one on one.
To put this game in perspective, the Trojans can still win the regular season title but it might require the Trojans to beat Stanford and UCLA, the Bruins to lose to Colorado (which they did 70-61) and beat Oregon. If this happens the three teams would each have five conference losses with the Trojans owning all tiebreakers with a better conference winning percentage and being a combined 3-0 against Oregon and UCLA. If Oregon and USC win out the Ducks would have played fewer games and have one less loss and it is unclear how the season title would be decided.
More importantly Enfield must quickly find a way to get his team to play at the level they played until the last week and a half. Before last week level they were a very good defensive team inside and out and behind Evan Mobley, Tahj Eaddy and a rotational player or two each game could score at a good level. Next Saturday after the UCLA game the team and coaches can think about seeding and post season play; for now the fans can continue to stress over post season matchup possibilities.
The Trojans Had No Scoring Except From Drew Peterson
Enfield said that there was a lot of “driving and flipping the ball up and not finishing shots that need to be made as a starter in the Pac 12.” He added that the inability to score had more to do with the Trojans than anything Utah did defensively and noted that Tahj missed open shots he has been making.
Drew shook off his poor game in Salt Lake and was the only Trojan who could score. He made 8-15 shots including one three for 19 points. That’s the extent of the good news on offense. Evan made just 2-7 shots but did add 7-8 free throws for 11 points to go along with 8 rebounds. Tahj made only 2-10 shots and was 0-3 from beyond the arc.
To win against good teams the Trojans need much more from Tahj and Evan, and as suggested after the CU game, a good scoring game from at least one other player. They got the game they wanted from Drew but the big guns did not come thru.
The rest of the team couldn’t score. Isaiah Mobley was 2-8 and finished with 6 points, though he grabbed 10 rebounds. Five were on the offensive end but that didn’t help. From their 18 offensive rebounds USC only scored 13 points, four more than the Utes had on 11 less offensive boards.
Ethan Anderson made 2-5 shots but had only one assist and 4 TOs. The whole team totaled only 8 assists, which led to Enfield’s comments about too much one on one play. Utah had 19 assists without their starting point guard who was injured early and didn’t come back.
Isaiah White started quickly and made 3-4 early shots and collected 4 early boards, but finished only 4-9 with no more rebounds. He made four steals but was called out by Enfield, which the coach rarely does. He commented that Isaiah had 3 or 4 opportunities to score after turnovers and missed them all.
The most puzzling stat on offense is this: Evan’s seven shots in this game means that he took only seven shots combined in the two games against Utah; he didn’t take an official shot in the first game. If Utah really isn’t doing anything special against him, or even if they are, a player of his caliber must be far more assertive on the offensive end and the coaches need to be far more creative. He has to establish position and demand the ball and the Trojans need to run plays where they clear out space for him to take a defender off the dribble. There isn’t a front court player in the conference who can stop him one on one and if or when a double team comes he can choose to take the shot or find the open teammate.
The Trojan Defense Was Equally Bad
In the first half Utah star forward Timmy Allen had only 4 points and their second best offensive option, Alfonso Plummer, had 8. No one else had more than four first half points. Allen and Plummer lit it up after the break. Allen finished with 15 points on 6-12 shots, 8 assists and 4 rebounds. Plummer made 7-12 shots including 5-7 from three. Plummer’s second half was a lesser version of Jeriah Horne’s game against the Trojans two nights before.
Right now the Trojans are playing poor defense against three point shooters and letting opponents get inside to score, a deadly combination. Utah and the Trojans both scored 32 points in the paint; that should not happen in a game where the Trojans have a big skill advantage against a Utah team which is at best average inside.
The Trojans Made Some Bad Plays
There are a lot to choose from but I’ll only mention a couple.
Freshman Reese Waters will be a very good player for the Trojans over his career and will likely be a big part of the rotation next season. He has rarely played since joining the team mid season from high school but he got in with 2 1/2 minutes left when Enfield was looking for anyone who could score. Almost immediately Reese shot an air ball. On the defensive end he made an outstanding block of an outside shot and was immediately called for a technical for something he said.
Behind Drew’s very good second half the Trojans cut the lead to four with over seven and a half minutes left. For the next three minutes the teams played evenly and with 4:40 on the clock Tahj went to line for a one and one, his only free throw in the game The lead was seven, and Tahj is by far the Trojans’ best player at the foul line. He missed the front end and that seemed to take the fight out of the team. Tahj has more opportunities at the line by drawing fouls on drives and shots but not in this game.
WeAreSC Player Of The Week
After the two bad losses late in the week I don’t believe anyone deserves the award. The Trojans played very well against Oregon but laid two very big eggs in the mountains. Yes, there is altitude to consider but UCLA is on the same trip and managed to blast Utah and play a close game against CU until the closing few minutes.
Enfield went to a smaller lineup in the closing minutes to try to put more pressure on Utah’s ball handlers while they tried to run clock. He also hoped this group would create some offense, but neither happened.
He commented that it is easier to take a big man (Evan) out of his game than an outside player. It’s easier to bring the double team when a big has the ball inside.
He has made that comment a few times this season and it is undoubtedly true, but when your star player is a seven footer the coaching staff needs to find ways to get him shots. After twenty five games it is unlikely that any new ideas will be developed, but look around the country and there are bigs getting far more touches and shots. Luka Garza is an entirely different player than Evan; he is a senior and is much bigger and stronger, but he is also a slow big man and it is easier to bring the double team against him. Iowa gets their star plenty of shots opportunities. Garza bullies defenders which Evan can’t do, but Evan has significant advantages in quickness and can get higher than almost anyone he will play against.
Enfield decided that he needed to say publicly that “I still believe in this team and I won’t bash the team in the media”. It’s true that he never goes at a player with the media and shoulders the blame for poor performances himself. It’s telling though that he made this comment for the first time after this game.
The Trojans are in free fall. After their last two games it appears that the big win over Oregon is the outlier. I don’t recall a Trojan team falling so far so fast anytime in the recent past. Is it possible for the Trojans to find themselves and win two next week and play well in Vegas and get a good (not great) seed? Of course it’s possible, but the real question is how likely is it that the Trojans can find the answers they need by Wednesday against Stanford. The coaching staff has been searching for answers; if they had figured it out we would not be worrying about how this season will end. Let’s hope for a thunderbolt very soon.