By Rich Ruben
The Trojans opened the season with home wins against two teams they were supposed to beat in Florida A&M and the University of Portland. Troy played great defense in the opener, but had trouble shooting from the outside. Against Portland, SC made 50% of its threes, but didn’t defend nearly as well. In both games, they had turnover issues, and didn’t shoot as well from the free throw line as anticipated. None of this is too surprising considering there are seven new players in the eleven man rotation.
This week will present greater challenges. The game at Reno will be the Trojans first game away from home. The Trojans play two teams this week that had similar seasons last year. They both won their conference in the regular season, were upset in their conference tournaments, lost in the first round of post season play, lost their head coaches who both left for higher profile jobs, and had a lot of off season player turnover. South Dakota State won the Horizon League regular season, before losing in the NIT. Nevada won the Mountain West Conference regular season and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
SC freshman Onyeka Okongwu was very impressive last week posting two double doubles and tying the school single game rebound record of 8 in his first college game. TV analyst Don MacLean called Big O’s game against A&M the most impressive opening game by any freshman he has seen since he has been covering the PAC 12. Big O does not look like a freshman on the court.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise last week was the play of freshman point guard Ethan Anderson. He piled up the assists, and did a very good job of running the offense He played with real confidence and demonstrated his athleticism.
The scoring load was pretty balanced between the two games, with all eleven players having their moments. All of them are capable of playing important minutes as the season progresses, and they have proven that Coach Enfield’s often repeated statement is true; this is the deepest team in his seven years at SC. The Trojans are going to need to show they can play well over a full 40 minutes, and they have some things to work on, but they won both games and are ready to move up in competition.
South Dakota State – Tuesday November 12 at 7:00 at Galen
The Jackrabbits are 2-0 after beating Peru State at home and Cal State Bakersfield on the road 93-91 in double overtime Saturday night. They won 24 games last year, though they were only 7-6 on the road, and lost to Texas in the opening round of the NIT.
After several successful seasons, former head coach TJ Otzelberger was hired away by UNLV. The Rebels’ decision to change coaches wound up giving a boost to the Trojans. Ethan Anderson had been committed to the Rebels, but opened up his recruiting after the coaching change and wound up at Troy. The new head coach is former Jackrabbit lead assistant Eric Henderson. This is his first year leading a college program.
Last year SD State was one of the highest scoring teams in the nation, finishing among the top teams nationally in most offensive categories. It will be hard for Coach Henderson to duplicate that offensive success. The top four scorers are gone. Three seniors averaged 50 points per game between them, and their high scoring sophomore guard who averaged almost 20 points followed Coach Otzelberger to UNLV.
However, the cupboard is not bare, and the Jackrabbits have several good scorers on this year’s team. The top returning scorer is 6’4” guard Alex Arians who averaged over 6 points per game last year, and gathered 10 rebounds in the Peru State game. Junior forward Doug Wilson had 24 points and 13 rebounds and sophomore forward Matt Dentlinger had 17 and 12 against Peru. 5’10” senior guard Brandon Key scored 15 in the opener and 18 against Bakersfield. In the CSUB game, SD State shot almost 52% from the field and 38% from three.
The Jackrabbits don’t have a lot of size, which should give SC a big advantage on the inside. Only two Jackrabbits are 6’8”, including Dentlinger, and the Trojans should dominate the boards.
Nevada – Saturday November 16 at 8:00 in Reno.
The scheduling of this game is not ideal. The football Trojans kickoff at Cal is also at 8:00. Interesting choice for SC fans to decide which game to watch live.
This game should be a good test for the Trojans. It will be the first time playing before a hostile crowd. Last year, the Wolfpack beat SC 73-61. The game was played when the Pack was in the middle of a 14 game winning streak to open the season, and were ranked in the Top 10. Both teams are very different this year.
Steve Alford is the new head coach, after being let go by UCLA in December. He is back in the Mountain West, having coached at New Mexico before getting the UCLA job. He has a tough act to follow. Former head man Eric Musselman led the Wolfpack to a number 5 ranking at one point last season, before the team slipped somewhat. They still would up 29-5 on the season. As a seventh seed, the Wolfpack lost to tenth seed Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Musselman left after the season to take the vacant Arkansas head job. Last year Nevada was led by the Martin twins who averaged 31 points between them, and Jordan Caroline averaged 17, but all three are gone.
When the coaching change occurred, almost every player eligible to return entered the transfer portal, and a few recruits decommitted. Alford did a very good job in getting most of those players to come back, and he brought in some talented transfers who are eligible to play this year.
To open this season, Nevada lost at home to Utah by 4, in a mild upset. Utah is in a full rebuild this season, with eleven freshman (including walk-ons) on the roster. That loss broke a long Wolfpack home winning streak. Over the weekend, Nevada beat LMU 73-67 at home, and they will host UT Arlington on Tuesday before the Trojans arrive on Saturday.
The Wolfpack return only two players who scored for them last year, and the two averaged a total of 2.8 points per game between them. But Alford was able to put together a good roster. Redshirt senior guard Lindsey Drew was sidelined last year due to injury. The son of former NBA player Larry Drew, Lindsey scored 54 points in the first two games this season, and added nine rebounds against LMU. Drew has said that he knows he needs to carry a lot of the scoring load early, while the new players settle in, and he’s off to a great start. Jazz Johnson, a 5’10” redshirt senior guard, and the “leading“ returning scorer from last year’s team, added 20 against LMU
Alford added some big time transfers. Junior guard Jalen Harrison averaged over 15 points per game at Louisiana Tech. JC transfer 6’6” guard Erick Parish played with Trojan Daniel Utomi at Akron as a freshman and last year averaged 18.4 points and was rated as the number four JC prospect in the country. And power forward Robby Robinson averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds at San Diego City College last season.
Although they have a few players with size, most of the Pack’s talent is in the backcourt, and they are expected to play four guards a lot of the time.
The Trojans have more talent than both of these teams. I expect one or both of these opponents to try to double team Big O or play some type of zone to try to limit his touches inside, though I think Onyeka will still have big games. I don’t think that either of these teams have enough talent in the front court to shut him down, regardless of what defense they play. I look for the Trojans to beat the Jackrabbits by double figures, and to have a tougher time with Nevada in their first road game, though I expect a win in Reno in what may be a close game.