By Rich Ruben
This Friday night at Galen, Trojan fans get a rare chance to see a team that has won two of the last four national titles, and also see the exciting new Trojan roster a few weeks ahead of the regular season. Basketball fans should not miss it, as USC hosts Villanova in an exhibition game at 8:00 pm, with proceeds going to the California Fire Foundation.
Coach Jay Wright has been at Villanova for 18 years, and his Wildcats won the national title in 2016 and 2018. His overall record at Villanova is 448-175, and his team plays in the rough Big East. Wright and the Wildcats have had this success without superstar players – no Zion Williamson, Kevin Durrant, Kyrie Irving, or Anthony Davis. They’ve done it the old fashioned way, recruiting good players who improve over their careers. UCLA reportedly offered to double Wright’s salary this past off season, but the coach chose to stay at ‘Nova.
Even though Villanova had a down year last year (for them), they still won the Big East Conference Tournament and regular season. They lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. In one “Way Too Early” poll this summer, they were picked eleventh (a poll in which the Trojans were listed as the first team out of the Top 25), and in an early summer media bracket, they were a three seed (and the Trojans were not projected in the field).
A lot of these lofty projections are based on Villanova’s pedigree. After all, last season was a disappointment, and their top two players are no longer there. Gone are Phil Booth, who averaged 18 1/2 points and six assists per game, and Eric Paschall, who scored 16 1/2 per game. They return their next four highest scorers, led by guard Collin Gillespie, who averaged almost 11 points. No one averaged over 5 rebounds last year, and as a team, the Wildcats shot 44% from the field and made 35% of their threes. Wright is anticipating significant improvement from returnees Gillespie, Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels to make up for some of the lost production.
This Villanova Team Has Already Been Hugely Impacted by Injuries
Like the Trojans, the Wildcats have a great recruiting class, ranked in the top five nationally. This may be Wright’s best ever class. And like SC, the class is headlined by two five star recruits. Five star forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is the media’s preseason pick for conference freshman of the year, and most analysts believe he is a special player. But fellow five star Bryan Antoine is injured, and will miss most if not the entire season. Antoine was expected to provide outside scoring.
Even after this injury, the Big East Media still picked Villanova and Seton Hall as co-conference favorites. In a demonstration of the respect Wright receives and appreciation for his past success, ‘Nova was ranked that high without a player named to the Big East preseason First Team, and only Gillespie and Samuels were named to the second team. Like the Trojans, this is not a team with star power unless the freshmen come through in a major way.
The Wildcats should be better than last year on the inside, with Robinson-Earl and fellow freshman 6’8”, 270 pound four star Eric Dixon. Dixon was the Pennsylvania player of the year, and averaged 27 points per game. They will be a good test for the three Trojan big men, senior Nick Rakocevic, and five star freshmen Elijah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu.
Players to Watch on Friday
Villanova received more bad news recently when Gillespie broke his nose. He should not miss too many games, but will not play against the Trojans. So SC’s young core will play against a young group of Wildcats. While the Trojans have senior returning starters Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews and two grad transfers to provide early direction and experience, Villanova will be relying on role players from last year and transfer Caleb Daniels for their experience.
With Gillespie out, combo freshman guard Justin Moore and 6’8” sophomore Saddiq Bey will likely be the primary ball handlers. Bey averaged 8 points per game last year, and is also the leading returning rebounder.
Two other Wildcats who will contribute are 6’4” Tulane transfer Daniels, who averaged 17 points per game in his freshman season at Tulane, and 6’5” freshman Chris Arcidiacono. Chris’s brother Ryan was a recent Villanova star and an important member of the 2016 national championship team.
The Villanova backcourt will be matched up against Mathews and fellow returnees Elijah Weaver and Chuck O’Bannon, grad transfers Quintin Adlesh and Daniel Utomi (who averaged 13.5 and 15.5 points respectively at Columbia and Akron last year), and freshman 6’8” four star wing Max Agbonkpolo and freshman point guards Ethan Anderson and Kyle Sturdivant.
The team that wins will likely be the team that receives the biggest contributions from their new comers. If the freshmen on one team are more ready to play at this level this early, that team should win. On paper this looks like a close game, and a very good opportunity for Coach Enfield and the Trojans to measure where they are as they get ready for the season opener on November 5. I like the Trojans to win a tight game over a ‘Nova team missing key players.
Notes from Tuesday Practice
Everyone is healthy and fully participated in practice on Tuesday. Jonah was not wearing the shoulder brace he wore at times last week.
– There have been rumors that former SC Senior Associate AD and current Villanova AD Mark Jackson may be a candidate for the SC position. He has been at Villanova for five years. It’s been confirmed that Jackson will be in LA with the Villanova team, though I was unable to confirm whether he will meet with anyone about the SC opening.
– At the beginning of practice, Andy Enfield had the team walk thru half court offensive sets.
– If the Trojans play the three big men at the same time against Villanova, Enfield has said they will play a zone. It will be interesting to see the type of zone, and which of the three bigs will have responsibility to challenge the ball above the free throw line.
– A number of highly rated high school players have made commitments in the past two weeks. According to the major recruiting sites, none of the players SC is rumored to be recruiting have committed elsewhere or eliminated the Trojans. The Trojans do not appear to be linked to any JC player of note. One recruit was at practice on Tuesday.
– Enfield told me that he hadn’t yet decided on a starting lineup for Friday’s game. When gently pressed, he acknowledged that he didn’t want to disclose his starting five, because he “could change (his) mind”, though it’s clear he has decided. My guess, based only on a gut feeling, is that Nick, Isaiah, and Onyeka will all start, along with Jonah and Elijah Weaver at point.
Interview with Coach Enfield
– The team is off Wednesday, and will practice again on Thursday. Other than the day off, they are following their normal pregame routine.
– He doesn’t know too much about Villanova, except that they have some very talented freshmen. Their 6’8” 270 pound freshman center will create some matchup problems. None of the Trojan bigs have that type of body.
– With so many new players, there has been some inconsistency in practice. A player will have a good day, and then doesn’t play as well the next day.
– He is most impressed with his team’s depth, and the number of players who can make shots.
– He thinks the Villanova game is a big benefit to the Trojans as they get ready to start the season.
Interview with Quinton Adlesh
– Quinton graduated from Columbia, and needed to transfer if he wanted to play his final season. In the Ivy League, players are only eligible for four years.
– He is from Arroyo Grande, California, and wanted to play in the PAC 12. He contacted SC and a couple of other schools, and decided the fit was right with the Trojans. SC’s academics was a factor in his decision. He is working on his Masters in Project Management.
– He was honored to be named a co-captain along with Jonah, and believes he brings experience and leadership to the team.
– He thinks he may play some point guard, though he will primarily play off the ball. He said he brings defensive intensity along with three point shooting, and is also capable of driving the ball and looking for teammates or finish inside.
Interview with Daniel Utomi
– Daniel was contacted by the SC staff after he announced he was transferring. His final two schools were SC and Clemson. At Akron, he played against both teams (the Trojans in a tournament in Hawaii), and had a chance to see both staffs. He realized the Trojans lacked experience but had a good core coming in, and thinks he will have a significant role.
– He was looking for a different experience and the chance to play at a higher level, and so far is very happy with everything at SC.
– He can play outside and is also willing to play inside and mix it up. His size and strength can create matchup problems for smaller guards.
– I asked him if one or two of his teammates have stood out. He is really impressed with Onyeka, who he says has freaky athletic ability and does things others can’t do.