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Trojans Seek To Escape The Bubble; Have The Trojans Improved During This Season?

By Rich Ruben

The bruised and battered Trojans return home for three crucial games, beginning with Arizona on Thursday at 7:00 and continuing with ASU on Saturday at 5:00. USC is 2-5 in its last seven games, and what seemed like a promising season is now hanging in limbo. 

The Trojans’ staff is working hard to right the ship, but there are several problems that they have been unable to fix so far. SC has one or more scoring droughts in practically every game and no one has proven to be a go-to scorer who can be counted on when a basket is needed. One would think that in crunch time the ball should go inside to SC’s best player and top scorer Onyeka Okongwu. He makes the highest percentage from the field on the team by far, and is good from the line, but in several games SC hasn’t found a way to get him the ball in crucial situations or his teammates doesn’t look for him. 

Over the second half of the season the Trojans have gone away from or have not been able to feed lobs to Big O at the rim. The other night when two of the nation’s best teams played, Kansas repeatedly lobbed the ball to their star big man Udoka Azubuike against then number one Baylor for a number of easy shots and dunks. Azubuike is taller than O, but not as athletic and not as quick off the floor. Because he gets the ball in places where he can dunk or immediately take it to the basket, Azubuike often avoids double teams and is shooting 74% from the field. The Trojans have not been able to use their best player in the same way. 

ASU and UCLA are teams that have improved significantly over the last month, while the Trojans’ overall team play has not advanced. There are, however, three SC players who have contributed more in the last month. Daniel Utomi is playing much better since he was inserted into the starting lineup. He has scored in double figures in 4 of the last 6 games, and in two he scored over 20. He is making more outside shots and has more often posted up smaller defenders. Another Trojan who has improved his game in the second half of the season is Isaiah Mobley. He is playing with more passion and intensity and more physicality. He is not yet a big scorer, in part because he is making only 57% of his free throws. Almost all of his misses from the line are long off the heel of the rim. 

To a lesser extent, Jonah Mathews’ play has also improved. He is now making a solid 37% of his threes, and that percentage has steadily risen over the last month, and his free throw percentage has improved from the mid 60’s to almost 76%. However, he only makes 38% from the field overall, a very low percentage for a lead guard. He has scored in double figures in 10 of the last 12 games, and had 16 or more points in 6 of those games. He has become the most likely player the coaches will look to when points are needed, but he has not been consistent enough to fill this role. 

I’m not suggesting that Trojan players do not improve over the course of their careers at SC or under Coach Enfield. Many have made great strides, including Nick Rakocevic. Early in his career Nick couldn’t stay on the court due to foul trouble. He has solved that problem and has far better control of his emotions during the games this season. He has become a very consistent rebounder and a good defender though his offensive production is still up and down. Other examples of players who improved greatly during their time at SC under Coach Enfield  include Jordan MacLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright, Julian Jacobs and Chimezie Metu. 

However, over the course of this season, other teams have improved much more than the Trojans. These teams have found more ways to improve their overall play. The Trojans are now fighting for their Tournament lives.They likely need to win the final three regular season games or win two of the three and two more in the Pac-12 Tournament to make the NCAA field. There are no more tomorrows. 

Preview of Arizona 

Arizona’s NET ranking is 8 and has been very good all season. SC lost the game in Tucson because the Cats shot 40 free throws. Some of them were very late when SC was fouling intentionally, but 40 is far too many. The Trojans shot the ball very well, making 50% from the field and 35% from three, compared to the Cats’ 45% and 22%, but it is very difficult to win when the other team is constantly at the line. 

Nick and Big O combined for 40 points in that game, and they and Isaiah will need to be at their best for SC to win the rematch. UofA relies on three freshman and a grad transfer for most of their production. The freshman guards, point guard Nico Mannion and shooting guard Josh Green, are both potential first round draft choices this Spring. 6’11” freshman Zeke Nnaji is a real force and may also be a first round pick this year. He gets help inside from 6’9” Stone Gettings. Gettings has improved in the second half of the season, and is now a major contributor including from beyond the three point line. He is a grad transfer from Cornell. In comparison, SC’s Ivy League grad transfer, Quinton Adlesh from Columbia, has been disappointing. His three against Utah was his first basket in nine games. 

Preview of ASU

Somehow the Devils are alone in first place by a half game with two weeks left in the season. No one outside of Tempe saw this coming a month ago. They are on a 7 game winning streak, though their NET is surprisingly only 41. Six of those wins have been by 5 points or less. Lately someone (most often star guard Remy Martin) has made a key play down the stretch in these close games. They are 19-8 on the season, 10-4 in conference play, and 6-3 in road games this year, the most road wins in the conference. 

ASU’s team stats are not particularly impressive. They make 43% of their shots, 32% from three, and 68% from the line. The Trojans’ season stats are nearly identical: 44% from the field, 34% from three, and 66% from the line. The difference is that the Devils have been improving late in the year and the Trojans have not. In the first meeting in Tempe, SC turned the ball over 24 times. The Trojans shot better than the Devils from the field and behind the arc, but struggled against the press. Coach Andy Enfield said after that loss that many of the turnovers were self inflicted, though the Trojans’ ball handling has been shaky in several games, and they seem to struggle against quick pressure defenses. 

The Devils also have a go-to player in the very quick point guard Martin. He’s a contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year (though I expect Payton Pritchard from Oregon will win the award). Martin averages 19 points and 35% from three. He has the ball late in games and can create his own shot or drive the ball and find an open teammate, and he is a solid 76% from the line.

Three other players score in double figures. Athletic JC transfer Alonzo Verge has been a much better player in the second half of the season, and averages 14 points. Though he only makes 26% of his threes, he is shooting better of late. Rob Edwards averages 11 points and their top inside threat Remello White averages 11. All four of these players can be counted on in practically every game, which is something the Trojans can’t match. 

Predictions

The Trojans could have won both games in Arizona earlier this month, and should have won at ASU. Something is not right with SC right now, and although they are capable of winning both of these games at home, I don’t see it happening. I look for the Trojans to split, losing to UofA and beating ASU in two close games. If it plays out that way, the last game at home against UCLA will likely be a must win, and then leaving the Trojans with more work to do in Las Vegas. 

Milestones

Jonah Mathews has now scored 1334 points in his career. He is 18th on the career scoring list, 7 behind Lorenzo Orr. He has 238 three point baskets, 5 less than second place Bennie Boatwright and 7 behind career leader Elijah Weaver. With at least 4 games to play (and likely at least two more in the Pac-12 Tournament, NCAA Tournament or NIT),he will have opportunities to become the career leader. Interesting that the top three players on the career three point list all played under Enfield. 

Nick Rakocevic has 908 career rebounds, which is second all time at SC. He is behind Ron Riley who had 1067 in three seasons and only 78 games in an era when freshmen could not play varsity basketball and there were only 26 games in a season. Riley averaged 13.7 over his career and has the record for most rebounds in a season, and also has the second most and thirteenth most in his three years. To give a comparison, Big O is averaging 8.9 this year.