By Rich Ruben
The 5-1 Trojans are taking their longest trip of the season to play three games across the country. SC opens the Tournament in Orlando on Thursday at 1:00 against Fairfield on ESPNU. The winner will play the winner of the Thursday Marquette vs Davidson game on Friday, and the two losers will also play Friday. Times and TV networks for Friday’s game depends on Thursday’s results. There are two four team brackets in the tournament. The final four games will be played on Sunday, with SC’s opponent dependent on the first two rounds’ results. The most prominent team in the other bracket is fifth ranked Maryland.
Trojan freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu was named Pac 12 Player of the Week for last week, following senior forward Nick Rakocevic who won the same honor the week before. Big O averaged 25 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the two games last week. He is second nationally among all freshmen in free throws made, third in blocks per game, fourth in free throw percentage (80%), fifth in rebounds per game, sixth in offensive rebounds per game, and seventh in scoring average (18 ppg). He is now clearly on the national radar.
The front line has generally played well, and the SC defense has been good in most of the games. In their last game, Temple exposed some early season Trojan weaknesses. The Owls brought quick double teams when the ball went inside to any of the Trojan bigs, and played a full court pressure defense the entire game. The Trojans didn’t adjust well, and SC can expect to see some of the same defensive tactics in future games until they show they can handle the pressure and beat the double teams. The biggest problem so far for Troy has been poor shooting from the guards and wings. The coaches have confidence in this group, and believe they are good shooters and that they will work their way out of their collective slump. It would be great if we see better shooting this week.
This will be a successful trip if the Trojans can come home with two wins, and a great trip if they can find a way to win the tournament. SC is ranked No 47 in the current ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI). The index ranks all 350 Division 1 teams. Fairfield is ranked at 245, Davidson 42, and Marquette 24. Let’s look at these three teams in depth. Since the Trojans can play any of four teams on Sunday from the other bracket, we’ll focus on the three teams in SC’s bracket.
Fairfield University Stags
Fairfield is a Jesuit school of 5200 students located in Connecticut not far from NYC. They play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) along with schools like Niagara and Rider. The Stags are 1-4, their win coming against Holy Cross by 5. They lost to Maryland by 19 in their last outing. Fairfield was picked to finish seventh in the eleven team league; Rider was the pre season favorite.
The Stags are shooting almost 43% from the field, 33% from three, and 76% from the free throw line. No Stag was a pre season first, second or third team all conference selection. First year head coach Jay Young inherited a team which went 9-22 last season, but Fairfield has some players with talent.
Three of the Stags’ guards are averaging in double figures so far this season, and all three are playing 30+ minutes per game. 6’5” junior Jesus Cruz is averaging 18.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. 6’5” senior Landon Taliaferronis averaging 14.4 points and 3 rebounds, and 6’4” junior Taj Benning is averaging 10.4 points, 6 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Fairfield tallest players are 6’8”. The best front court players are 6’8” red shirt senior forward Vincent Eze, who averages 6 points and 3 rebounds, and 6’8” junior forward Wassef Methnani from Tunisia who averages 5.4 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The Trojans will have a big size and talent advantage in the front court. Big O, Nick and Isaiah Mobley combine for over 40 points per game and should dominate. It would be a good time for the back court to emerge from their collective slump. SC should win this game by double figures, and play the Davidson/ Marquette winner on Friday on one of the ESPN stations.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette began the season ranked in the AP top 25, but have fallen out of the rankings. The Golden Eagles are 3-1, including a 10 point home win over Purdue, and a 16 point loss at in-state rival Wisconsin. Former Duke great Steve Wojciechowski is in his sixth season as the top man for the Golden Eagles; they finished 24-10 last year and second in the rugged Big East. They lost in the second round of the Big East Tournament and then lost by 19 to Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Big Dance. So far, Marquette is shooting 42.8% from the field, a solid 41% from three, and 76.4 % from the free throw line.
Marquette was picked to finish fourth in the Big East this year behind Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier. The Golden Eagles return pre season all conference 5’11” senior guard Markus Howard and his 25 point average from last year. So far this season, Howard is averaging 21.3 ppg, making 25 of 59 from the field, and shooting 46% from three and almost 92% from the free throw line. 6’4” red shirt junior guard Koby McEwen is averaging 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He has made 11 of his 17 three point attempts (64.7%), and is shooting 47% from the field and 91 % from the line. No other Golden Eagle is scoring in double figures.
The top rebounder is 6’9” junior forward Theo John at only 5.5 per game. The tallest Golden Eagle is 7’0” southern California product Jayce Johnson, but he only plays 5 minutes per game.
If the Trojans play Marquette, the game once again will match SC’s front court against Howard and the Golden Eagles’ backcourt. The Trojans have the talent to win this matchup, though it will be a much easier task if the SC guards play well offensively. And the Trojans don’t want to put Howard or McEwen on the line. Wisconsin has its usual big front line and dominated the Golden Eagles inside. But to provide a bit more perspective, the Badgers lost their most recent game by 4 to the Richmond Spiders.
Yes, this is Steph Curry’s Davidson. The small North Carolina school has only 1900 students, but consistently produces good basketball teams led by 30 year head coach Bob McKillop. The Wildcats are only 2-3 so far, but they beat Nevada by 20 at home in their season opener, which is double SC’s margin over the Wolf Pack in Reno. Two of Davidson’s three losses are to the SEC’s Auburn and the ACC’s Wake Forest. The Wildcats play in the Atlantic 10 along with VCU, Fordham, George Washington, and Duquesne. Last year Davidson lost in the first round of the NIT, and this season they were picked to finish second in the league behind VCU.
Davidson returns their top six scorers from last year, four of whom averaged double figures. They are led by two returning all conference guards. 6’4” senior guard Jon Axel Gundmondsson from Iceland is the reigning A-10 player of the year, and this season is averaging 13 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals, and is shooting 46% from the field and 41% from three. 6’5” all conference junior guard Kellan Grady is averaging 16.8 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.6 rebounds , and is shooting just below 50% from the field and almost 85% from the line. The best front court player so far has been 6’10” sophomore forward Luka Brajkovic from Austria, averaging 10 points and 4.6 rebounds. Davidson also has players from Sweden and Denmark. As a team, the Wildcats are shooting 46.7% from the field, 38.9% from three, and 80.3% from the line.
It may be a broken record, but if the Trojans play Davidson in the second round, it will be the Trojans’ front court vs the Wildcats’ guards, and the Trojans should win this matchup. Davidson makes their free throws, and if it becomes a free throw shooting contest, the Trojans may be in trouble.
Can The Trojan Front Line Lead SC to Multiple Tournament Wins?
Big O, the 6’9” freshman, is averaging 18 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3 blocks, and is shooting 60.6% from the field and 80% from the line. 6’11” senior Rakocevic has been Inconsistent so far, with three great games and three sub par outings. He is averaging 14.7 points, 9.2 boards and 2.5 steals and shooting 52.5% from the field. And 6’10” freshman Isaiah Mobley is averaging 8.8 ppg, and 5.5 boards, and is shooting 60% from the field. All three are good passers from the high post, and they have displayed good chemistry so far.
Freshman point guard Ethan Anderson has the most assists in the PAC 12, and is 19th in the country and second best among all freshmen nationally. His assist numbers would be better if his back court mates were making more shots. His speed and ball handling will help the Trojans if they face pressure defenses.
If the three front court players are “on”, the Trojans can and should beat any of the teams in their bracket in the first two days of the tournament.