By Rich Ruben
While the SC fan base waits for the official announcement of the hiring of a new AD, and are speculating about the fate of the football coach and possible replacements at the same time trying to forget the Oregon nightmare, the basketball season opens on Tuesday night. The Trojans play two home games this week, against the Florida A&M Rattlers at 8:00 on Tuesday Nov. 5, and against the University of Portland Pilots at 8:00 on Friday Nov. 8.
This is the most highly anticipated basketball season in many years. The Trojans have their highest ranked recruiting class ever, ranked between 5-7 by most recruiting services, and it includes two five star big men, a first for SC. The Trojans also added two good shooting grad transfers, and their second and third leading scorers from last year return. Still, the Trojans are not getting any national attention. A new preseason projected NCAA bracket which came out last week does not include SC. Sports Illustrated just published its preseason top 25, and while Villanova (who the Trojans recently beat by double figures in a televised exhibition game) is slotted at number nine nationally, the Trojans are not ranked. The Trojans will have to prove they are deserving of national attention, and the road to relevance begins Tuesday night.
There is a nationally televised double header Tuesday involving the four top ranked teams in the country, Michigan State v Kentucky and Kansas v Duke. The Trojans are taking a different route to start the year, playing two teams they should dominate. With only three returning players with any real game experience at SC, this is a good decision; the team needs to build toward the challenges they face as the season moves forward when they play several highly regarded teams. This week, anything less than two decisive victories will be disappointing. Expect Coach Enfield to use different combinations throughout both games, play his entire roster, and use these games to continue to evaluate his personnel and prepare for the meat of the schedule. The Trojans begin the season without any significant injuries, and should be ready to go.
Let’s look at the first two opponents.
Florida A&M Rattlers – November 5
The Rattlers begin their season on a Western trip, playing at Hawaii and at Pacific after the game at Galen. A&M has taken the approach of playing a lot of “money“ pre-conference games against much bigger programs including Seton Hall, Kansas State, Tennessee, Washington State and Iowa State. They made the decision to clearly over schedule in order to earn more money than they would by playing lesser opponents.
A&M plays in the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) with the likes of Howard and Morgan State. They return 12 of 14 players from last season, but lost their two top scorers. Several of the returning players averaged between 6-8 points per game last year. The top returning player is 6’4” sophomore guard MJ Randolph who is a preseason third team all MEAC selection.
The Rattlers are in the first year of a 5 year NCAA probation in many sports, including mens’ basketball, for Lack of Institutional Control. The sanctions include a post-season ban for the basketball team this year and scholarship losses and recruiting restrictions. Possibly as a result, A&M has no freshmen on the roster, but instead brings a very upper class dominated roster to LA, with eight seniors and a red shirt junior.
In the conference preseason poll, the Rattlers are picked to finish ninth in the league. Besides Reynolds, the other leader is 6’2” junior guard Kenyon Reaves. Both averaged over eight points per game last year.
They have three players with some size. 6’9” junior center DJ Jones averaged 5.9 points and 3.9 rebounds last year. 6’9” redshirt senior Ifeanyi Umezurke averaged 2.9 and 2.7. The third big is a 6’8” forward who rarely played last season, and the Rattlers have no one else over 6’5”.
This is not a good Rattlers team. Look for the Trojans to dominate.
Portland Pilots – November 8
The Pilots have taken the opposite approach in putting together their schedule. They open with Willamette and also play Incarnate Word and Evergreen State, in an effort to rack up some early wins and build confidence. They were very young last season, and should show some improvement.
The biggest name for the Pilots is head coach and former NBA great Terry Porter. This is his third season at Portland. After a good first year, the Pilots struggled mightily last year, finishing 7-25, including an 18 gams losing streak to close the year and a winless conference season, though two of the losses were in overtime. The play in the top heavy West Coast Conference (WCC), which some call the “Gonzaga Conference”.
The Pilots played in the NAIA through 1958. Since then they have made two NCAA appearances, the most recent in 1996 as a 14 seed, and have no NCAA tournament wins. The most famous basketball name to come out of Portland is longtime Miami Heat head coach Eric Spielstra.
Portland has three starters returning, led by junior guard JoJo Walker who averaged 11.5 points per game last year. No other returning player averaged over 5.7. They bring good size to Galen. 6’10” sophomore Hugh Hogland averaged 4.5 points per game, 7’0” junior Jacob Tryon averaged 5.2, and 6’10” sophomore Theo Akwuba is the leading returning rebounder at 4.0 boards per game They Pilots added 7’1” freshman Cody Collinsworth
The Trojans should roll over Portland, who are picked to finish last in the WCC. Though this is a better Portland team than last season, they still lack the talent to compete with top teams. The Trojans front line is far more skilled and athletically superior, and the Pilots cannot match the Trojans outside shooting or defensive intensity. The Pilots’ roster, which does not include a WCC preseason all conference selection, does not match up well with the Trojans in any area. The big question will be if they can keep the score respectable.
By next Friday night, expect the Trojans to be 2-0, and looking forward to continuing to build as the schedule toughens, including the first road game next week.