By Rich Ruben
Onyeka Okongwu and Drake London watched from the bench in sweats while their teammates defeated Florida Gulf Coast 71-58 on Sunday night. The Trojans are now 11-2 on the season. Big O sprained an ankle late in the LSU game. Coach Andy Enfield said before the game that O was able to gut out the remainder of the win against the Tigers and even block the final desperate shot. Andy said O’s availability for the game against the Eagles would be a game time decision, though he could play if needed. Drake participated in his first practice in Sunday’s walk thru. He needs to learn the offense and defense and get into basketball shape.
Isaiah Mobley started in O’s place. SC came out flat and started slow. Slow starts have been common, which must concern the staff. The Eagles’ big man 6’9” Justus Rainwater got into foul trouble right away, but they still out rebounded the Trojans 14-7 in the first ten minutes. On his birthday, Nick Rakocevic led SC, finishing with 19 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block. He was 7-10 from the field. Before the game, Andy laughingly said that Nick was 5-8 from three so far this season and led the conference in three point shooting at 62.5%. Andy said Nick reminded the staff repeatedly that he was leading the conference. Nick’s needling may only get worse. He was 2-2 from three, and is now 7-10, which he laughed about in the post game media conference.
There are several reasons which could help explain the Trojans’ very slow start and generally unfocused play last night. The team leader in scoring and rebounding didn’t play; the team was off for the holidays from immediately after the LSU game a week ago Saturday night until practice at 5:00 pm on Friday and several players caught red eyes home that night; FGCU came into the game with a 3-10 record; and conference play begins this Thursday night in Pullman with the first of three road games to open The conference season.
The Trojans won this game at the free throw line, which is something we rarely say. SC committed only 6 fouls, 3 in each half, and the Eagles shot 6 free throws, making only 1. The Trojans made 16-23 from the line, including 9-10 in the second half. Isaiah Mobley was only 2-7 from the line in the first half, accounting for most of the missed chances.
Besides Nick, a few other Trojans played well and the team did a good job in several areas. Daniel Utomi continued his good play of late. In almost 23 minutes he scored 13 points on 4-10 from the field and 3-7 from three. Max Agbonkpolo had 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in only 11 minutes, and might have been the Trojans’ best player in the first half. And Kyle Sturdivant had his second straight good performance shooting 2-5 from the field with 5 assists and no TOs. The Trojans recovered on the boards, out rebounding the Eagles by 5 for the game. And they only gave up 2 fast break points on the night.
There were also several negatives. The Trojans committed 18 TOs, 16 by the starters. Ethan Anderson scored only 2 points in almost 22 minutes and had 2 assists and 4 TOs. In his first start in several games, Isaiah Mobley did not have as big an impact against the smaller Eagles as might have been expected. In almost 28 minutes, he took only 4 shots and made 2. He had 7 boards and 3 TOs. Isaiah led the team with 4 offensive rebounds, but struggled at times as the smaller Eagles tried to push and body him Jonah Mathews made only 1-7 from three, after several good shooting games, and the team shot only 30% from long distance. The Trojans also only outscored the Eagles by 4 in the paint.
– The Trojans are not the same team without Big O. His numbers so far this season are among the best in the country for freshmen, but his impact is more than numbers alone. Not only does he block shots, he alters many more. He forces other teams to design defenses to keep him from getting the ball in the low post, leaving more room for the shooters to get better shots. And he never takes a play off.
– Elijah Weaver is struggling right now. In 22 minutes he made a three and all 4 of his free throws for 7 points, but he also had 4 TOs against only 2 assists. It appears his confidence level is down. It would help this team a lot if he finds his shot.
– Daniel continued his very strong play of late. Although he has a big man body on his 6’6” frame, he prefers to shoot from the perimeter, and his shots are falling.
– Kyle played his best two games by far against LSU and FGCU. He is earning more minutes, and is looking very confident on the floor.
– An hour and a half before the game, assistant coach Chris Capko worked with the two freshman point guards, Ethan and Kyle, on quick release shots from three off passes from different spots on the floor. That extra work didn’t result in any made threes from the pair on Sunday.
– The Trojans are not getting very much national media attention. A road sweep of WSU, UW, and UCLA in the first three conference games would greatly change everything. It’s doable, but the game in Seattle in particular will be very difficult, and winning three in a row on the road is a very tough challenge.
Pre Game Comments From Andy Enfield
– Andy was in a very jovial mood before this game; much more up beat than usual.
– This week’s trip up north will be a long one. SC is the only Power 5 team which does not charter flights (even some mid major schools charter). They will leave Wednesday morning for the Thursday night game in Pullman, and stay in Washington until the morning of Monday, Jan 6, after the Sunday night game in Seattle.
– Daniel has turned a corner, and is playing very well. Daniel made his coach look good in the next few hours by having another strong game.
– Nick and Jonah are both playing good defense. Nick is “playing great right now”, and is a leader for the younger players.
Post Game Interview With Andy
– The team “did not play extremely well”. Before the season, with all of the new players and having to rely heavily on the freshman class, Andy thought a 9-4 pre conference record would be fine, 10-3 good, and 11-2 exceptional. Given their schedule, he is very pleased with where the Trojans are as a team.
– The last three weeks they have played excellent basketball.
– Kyle played very well in this game, and is developing rapidly. He will be “an exceptional player down the road”.
– Big O will definitely play Thursday against WSU.
– They are working to get Drake into basketball shape and ready to play as soon as possible. Andy said Drake is an exceptional athlete.
– The Eagles don’t have a lot of size and didn’t try to drive the ball inside very often, which contributed to the Trojans only having six fouls.
Post Game Interview With Nick
– He has worked on his three point shot a lot. He shot threes in high school, and now that he is playing power forward with O playing center, he is on the perimeter more often. Andy has told him he can take “good, open three point shots”, but he has to be patient and be able to set his feet and square his shoulders. Andy does not want him to take contested threes.
– Late in the game Andy pulled Nick out after Nick made a big dunk and stopped to flex while his man sprinted down court and got a dunk on the other end. Andy reminded him that the same thing happened against LSU. Nick took it as a teaching moment and told Andy it will not happen again.
– The team was not looking past FGCU. They missed Big O on both ends
– Nick noted how well Max played, and said the freshmen are rapidly improving.
Post Game Interview With Daniel
– When I asked him about his much improved shooting in the last several games, he went back to the comment he made several weeks ago when he wasn’t shooting well, and repeated that he knew “the shots will fall”.
– Kyle is “a tough kid.” Daniel tells him to always be ready, and he has come in and contributed in the last couple of games.
Taking into account all of the possible reasons for the Trojans not playing at their best in this game, they’ll take the win and get ready for conference play. The players know that the team did not play well, and also know that they have yet to play a complete game, where all or almost all of the parts of their game are on.
Looking back on the now completed non conference season, the Trojans didn’t get the signature win that would have helped their post season prospects. LSU will have a good season, but they are clearly not as strong as last year. The TCU and Nevada wins on the road were good, but both teams are also down from last year. The Harvard win will help the resume. The Crimson beat Cal in Berkeley last night without their top scorer, and they are favorites to win the Ivy. The Trojans don’t have a “bad” loss, but they also don’t have a really good win. There will be a lot of chances to get some big wins in a very improved PAC 12.