By Rich Ruben
The Trojans used a rare exhibition game against a top tier opponent to make a major statement. Really, they made a number of statements in the 72-61 win. The newcomers as a group played very well, the defense was outstanding, and the effort relentless. The team will come out of this game with a lot of confidence and the staff will have a lot to build on. The night couldn’t have been much better for SC.
A Tale of Two Halves
It appeared the Trojans came out tight. The freshman class had three points in the first half, and the team had eight turnovers very quickly and eleven for the half. In postgame interviews Andy pointed out that SC averaged eleven turnovers per game last year. ‘Nova also dominated the boards in the opening half. There were some bright spots: Elijah Weaver has made a very big jump from his freshman season, and grad transfer Daniel Utomi made four quick threes in a short stretch. He finished the night five for seven from three, and one of his misses was a heave as the shot clock expired.
The second half was completely different. Freshman Onyeka Okongwu scored fourteen of his fifteen after the half and the turnovers reversed with the Wildcats coughing up the ball. The Trojans also rebounded much better, and the team committed only four fouls after halftime. Several other players also had much better second halves, including freshmen Isaiah Mobley and Ethan Anderson and senior Jonah Mathews
The Trojan D Was Very Tough All Game
The Trojans played an aggressive switching man to man defense almost the whole game, with a little zone mixed in. Andy started all three big men, along with Mathews and Weaver. Even with the three bigs, the defense switched everything. Mobley and Onyeka are athletic enough to guard all over the court, which allows all five to switch. The defensive intensity and play didn’t change as different players rotated in. As planned, all eleven players got meaningful minutes, with Andy giving more time to those who had stronger showings.
Andy called out grad transfer and co-caption Quinton Adlesh for his defense, and said Quinton is one of the best on-ball defenders he has ever coached. He also complimented Jonah and Onyeka for their defensive effort. Villanova shot only 37% from the field, and 23% from three. He said the Cats shoot as many threes each year as almost any team in the country. They took a lot of threes, but they were almost always contested. Great defensive switching and rotation to get to the shooters.
The Young Trojans Played With Great Maturity
The Trojans kept their intensity during the sloppy start. Weaver and Utomi shot well early, but with all of the turnovers and getting beat up on the boards, the team couldn’t get untracked. Early on Nick Rakocevic had a couple of turnovers, was called for a questionable foul, and got an early hook. Last year, he may have lost his concentration and committed a flagrant foul when he returned. Not last night. Although he didn’t have his best game, he kept his head in the game and contributed, especially in the second half.
At one point in the second half, Villanova pulled ahead by eight, but the Trojans didn’t wilt. They responded with a big run, took the lead, and built the lead into a double digit win. Freshmen Okongwu, Mobley and Anderson had big roles in the run. Andy was very happy with the team’s hard play and physicality throughout the game.
Which Trojans Impressed
Onyeka had a very big second half. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, on a variety of inside moves and shots with both hands. He is also an interior force on defense. In post game interviews, Jonah and Daniel Utomi answered several questions by saying simply that Onyeka “is special”. I think his play in the second half was what the coaches and his teammates expected, and no one was surprised.
Three other players impressed as well. Andy said Utomi is a career 40% three point shooter, but even so, his shooting performance was a pleasure to watch. All five of his made threes swished cleanly without grazing the rim, and he made shots from different spots on the floor.
The point guard combination of freshman Ethan Anderson and sophomore Weaver was very good. Elijah is greatly improved over last year, and played with much greater confidence. But the greatest revelation to me was Ethan Anderson. He is far more athletic than he might appear, has good quickness, can get to the basket, made one shot from about 15 feet, and displayed good court vision and defense.
Villanova Should Have a Good Season
Five star freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is for real. Great touch around the basket, and a very good offensive rebounder. Returnees Saddiq Bey and Caleb Samuels can score and played hard. And when point guard Collin Gillespie returns from injury in a few weeks, the Cats will round into a good team – perhaps not a national championship contender, but a typical physical Big East contender.
Onyeka said in a post game interview that he doesn’t model his game after anyone. A questioner said that Onyeka reminds him of Sam Clancy, but Onyeka had no idea who Clancy was. I don’t see the comparison; Onyeka is far more athletic.
Andy said they need to get more offensive flow when the three bigs are in the game together. They had trouble getting the ball inside to the freshmen in the first half, but Andy noted it was much better in the second half. He attributed the slow offensive first half in part to this issue. Andy plays it close to the vest in interviews; I saw him 45 minutes before tipoff, and asked if he could tell me his starting lineup yet. He grinned, and said he would decide in the next ten minutes.
Ex basketball star Desmond Farmer was at the game, and so was ex SC offensive tackle Zack Banner. A dozen or more former Villanova players were present. Friends and I were able to identify Tim Thomas and Ed Pinckney. Villanova AD Mark Jackson was also in attendance, and got a lot of hugs from SC people. I have heard from a reliable source that Jackson is not a candidate for the USC athletic director position at this time.
On the recruiting front, Trojan commit Evan Mobley was at the game, along with five-star guard Jalen Green (Napa, Calif./Prolific Prep) and several family members. It looks as though USC could have a good chance to land either Green or fellow 5-star guard Ziaire Williams (Chatsworth, Calif./Seirra Canyon), but likely not both. The main competition for Green is Memphis, and for Williams is Stanford.