By Rich Ruben
The college basketball season opens around the country on Wednesday and there have already been some games cancelled due to COVID. The Trojans host Cal Baptist on Wednesday night and Montana on Saturday. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 6:00 pm.
The Trojans May Exceed Expectations This Season
In last week’s media poll the Trojans were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12. I don’t have a vote but sixth “felt” about right. That was before the announcement that Drew Peterson will play this season. Peterson will make a big difference and should help push the Trojans up in the conference standings. The voting media has not seen many or possibly any of the conference teams practice. No one has been allowed to watch any Trojan practice and the media poll appears to be based only on an analysis of team rosters. With Peterson the Trojans “feel” more like a fourth place team.
The three returning players are all sophomores, including team captains Isaiah Mobley and Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo, but the three combined to average only 14 points a game last season. The Trojans have added seven new players. Five of the new additions have played Division 1 basketball at other schools. Red shirt junior Noah Baumann averaged almost 11 points the year before last at San Jose State. Transfer junior Drew Peterson averaged over 11 last year at Rice. Grad transfers Chevez Goodwin averaged 12 at Wofford, Isaiah White averaged over 14 at Utah Valley and Tajh Eaddy averaged 9 at Santa Clara (the year before Tajh shot and scored much better and he averaged 15 over the second half of last season when he was inserted back into the starting lineup). None of the transfers played in a conference on par with the Pac-12 so we can’t automatically assume they will produce similar numbers for the Trojans. On the plus side they will all have lesser roles for USC and will not be needed to produce the same numbers.
Add super freshman Evan Mobley into the mix and it is obvious there is good talent and predicting how this season will play out for the Trojans is difficult. With Peterson the Trojans are at least two deep at every position. Max, Drew and Isaiah White all can play multiple positions so Enfield will have a good deal of flexibility. There is enough talent for this team to finish higher than sixth in the PAC.
When practice began Enfield said that this is the biggest team he has ever had, and in part because of their size, he believes this team will be better defensively than the very good defensive team from last season. The biggest question on defense is whether they have enough quickness to handle teams with skilled guard play. Lately Enfield has added that this team will also be better on offense than last year. Playing on the road will not be as difficult this season without fans at Arizona, Oregon and all over the conference providing big home court advantages. If Enfield is right about this team the Trojans can equal or potentially exceed last year’s third place conference finish.
Last season I hit it on the nose by predicting the Trojans would win 21 or 22 games; they finished 22-9. This year each team will play 27 games at most with cancellation of some games possible. Some conference teams have already lost opening week games. The conference has moved to a 20 game conference schedule instead of the 18 played for many years, which should make every team’s schedule stronger.
Three Teams Look On Paper To Be Stronger Than The Other Nine
UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford should wind up at the top of the Pac-12. The Bruins lost only one contributor from last year in Prince Ali. They turned their season completely around mid year about the same time Ali was taken out of the starting lineup. 6’9” guard Chris Anderson, a preseason All Pac 12 player, is a tough matchup and some of the younger Bruins should be better.
ASU lost steady big man Romelo White to the transfer portal but the Sun Devils have the best backcourt in the conference. Preseason All-Pac 12 and uber quick point guard Remy Martin leads the team. He has been included on some preseason All American teams. They also return high scoring guard Alonzo Verge and add Ohio State transfer Luther Muhammad and five star freshman Josh Christopher.
Stanford brings back two of the three stars from last season, pre season All Pac-12 big man Oscar da Silva and guard Daejon Davis. They have added forward Ziaire Williams who is the second most decorated freshman coming into the conference this year.
Twenty minutes before the first game last season Andy Enfield told me that he didn’t know who would start for the Trojans. He wouldn’t disclose the opening lineup until the players were introduced at game time. The starting lineup changed twice during the season. After the first few games Enfield decided to start only two of his three big men and Isaiah Mobley played most of the season as the the first front court sub. Midseason, Enfield again tinkered with the starting lineup and replaced Elijah Weaver with Daniel Utomi (this move may have been the reason Weaver entered the transfer portal). Both changes helped the starting lineup and the bench.
This year it appears to be a lock that the Mobley brothers and Ethan Anderson will be starters. Without seeing any practice, my guess is Max Agbonkpolo and Drew Peterson will fill out the starting lineup. It seems likely that two of the team’s three ball handlers will usually be on the court at the same time; Tajh Eaddy might start ahead of Peterson, but my guess is Peterson will get the first look. It’s also a guess whether Enfield will give Agbonkpolo the start over Isaiah White. Enfield has raved about White’s physicality and energy every time his name comes up, but my guess is that Max will be given the first crack as the starting wing in part because he has an outside game and White scores mostly on slashes and finishes hear the rim. With the Mobley brothers on the court, Max’s perimeter scoring may fit better. The starter on the wing may come down to which player is stronger on defense.
Whoever starts the Trojans’ success this year will in large part be driven by how well they can take advantage of their size. Eight of the ten players are at least 6’6”. The biggest questions about the Trojans are how well the guards defend the perimeter and whether all ten players meet their potential. Before last season more was expected from grad transfer Quinton Adlesh and then freshmen Isaiah Mobley and Max Agbonkpolo than they were able to deliver. This year’s roster includes only two freshmen, and Boubicar Coulibly may be the last player off the bench. If this team plays to its potential, considering the rosters of the other conference teams, the Trojans can finish with around 19 wins.
Preview Of Cal Baptist
USC opens the season Wednesday night by hosting the Lancers. Long a Division II power, Cal Baptist will begin its third season in Division I and in the Western Athletic Conference. Head coach Rick Croy is beginning his eighth season in Riverside; previously he was the lead assistant at St Mary’s. He has had great success in leading the Lancers into the Division II NCAA tournament every year before they moved up. In Division II Cal Baptist with its 8000 undergraduates played largely under the radar in Southern California, but they get more attention now by scheduling Pac 12 teams; the Lancers’ also play Arizona.
The WAC has approached conference scheduling in this pandemic season in a different manner. Each weekend one team will play another team twice in back to back games at the same location on the road or at home. Last year CBU won 21 games and finished second in the league with a 10-6 record. The WAC has evolved over the years. In the 1970’s the league was home to Arizona, ASU, BYU, and Utah. After conference reshuffling the WAC included UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, Air Force, and other name programs. Not all of the schools played football and the major football playing schools broke off and formed the Mountain West Conference. The league reformed and currently includes defending champion New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, Utah Valley (the prior home of USC’s Isaiah White), Cal State Bakersfield, Dixie State and Texas Rio Grande among others.
Last year the Lancers scored almost 80 points per game and were the 16th highest scoring team in Division I. This year’s team is almost completely rebuilt. The five leading scorers are gone and the roster is composed mostly of transfers. They feature four players from Australia and other players from British Columbia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, New York, Arizona and Connecticut. Players have transferred in from Florida, TCU, St Mary’s, New Hampshire, Hofstra, Incarnate Word, Citrus City College, and Marist.
With all of the turnover and without seeing this group of Lancers it’s impossible to predict how well they will play. However it is unlikely they push the Trojans and make it a close game.
Preview Of The Montana Grizzlies
Montana visits Galen on Saturday. Head coach Travis DeCuire played for the Griz and was an assistant at Cal before taking the head job at Montana. He is in his seventh season and his previous teams have won 20 or more games four times and made the NCAA tournament field twice. Montana has a history of turning out top head coaches including Jud Heathcote who won an NCAA title at Michigan State with Magic Johnson, current Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, current Oregon State head man Wayne Tinkle, and former Stanford and Cal coach Mike Montgomery.
Montana plays in the Big Sky Conference and finished third last year with an overall 18-13 record. Eastern Washington won the league last year and Northern Colorado also finished ahead of the Griz.
Montana lost its top two scorers from last season who averaged 35 points between them. They have good size with four players between 6’9”-6’10” but only one played for Montana last year. 6’9” junior forward Mark Anderson averaged 3 points and less than 2 rebounds in 11 minutes a game last season.
The top returning players are 6’5” sophomore forward Derrick Carter- Hollinger who averaged almost 7 points and and 5 rebounds and shot 59% from the field and 6’3” sophomore guard Josh Vazquez who averaged 5 points and almost 2 assists.
Although the Grizzlies return more points per game than the Trojans, it is hard to see Montana making this a close game.
After the abrupt end to last season with the Trojans playing at a very high level and set to play Arizona in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament, there is a lot of anticipation for the start of this season. Whether the Trojans will be able to play all 27 games remains to be seen, though the NCAA has made it very clear that the tournament will be played and it appears that all tournament games will be in one city.
This season should be exciting. For the second year in a row the Trojan roster is greatly rebuilt around a very likely top six draft pick freshman center. It appears next season will be the beginning of more stable rosters. Five of the ten players this season are underclassmen who will return next year and Isaiah Mobley could also return. The Trojans also will have defensive star Josh Morgan, who is redshirting and has three years of eligibility and the recruiting class announced last week includes four good players. It is likely this foundation will be supplemented by a high-level JC transfer and possibly another player or two in the spring. But first, let’s get ready to enjoy this year’s Trojan basketball.