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USC hoops review at the midway point

By Rich Ruben

The Trojans have reached the midway point in this season, a season unlike any other. Division 1 teams are allowed to play 27 regular season games this season, though cancelled games may result in many teams playing less than 27. The Trojans are 11-2 and 5-1 in Pac-12 play. USC’s game scheduled for Saturday in Berkeley has been postponed due to Covid issues at Cal. The Trojans will make up the game at Oregon State this Tuesday and are scheduled to make up their other postponed conference game at home against Stanford on Tuesday, February 2. No date has been set to make up the game at Cal.

The Pac-12 Teams Fall Into Four Groups

Enough basketball has been played to make some tentative conclusions about how the conference race may play out.

Cal, WSU and Washington appear to be on the bottom rung. It is highly unlikely any of these teams will escape the second division.

The third group consists of Oregon State, ASU and Utah. The big surprise here is ASU; they have the personnel to be much better than they have played but are currently 1-3 in conference play. They have four solid scorers, and though they lack size, it is surprising that they are not having more success.

Arizona and Stanford make up the second group and they both have 3 conference losses. Stanford has the personnel to move into contention but has underperformed. Arizona was hard to evaluate before the season. Like USC and Oregon, the Cats had to substantially rebuild their roster. So far they look like a middle-of-the-conference team.

The four teams in the top tier have separated themselves from the rest of the conference but not from each other. UCLA is undefeated and in first place. The Trojans and Ducks each have one loss though the Trojans have played one more game than Oregon. Colorado is 5-2 and has played more difficult conference games than the three teams they are chasing.

The final conference standings will likely be determined by the head to head matchups between the four top teams. The Trojans only play Oregon at home this season; they still have a game at Colorado and two games with UCLA upcoming. Depending on what happens gams against Stanford and Utah may also become important. The Trojans have two games with the Cardinal and a game at Utah left.

What The Numbers Tell Us

The Trojans slipped from 13 in the NET rankings to 16; only Colorado from the Pac-12 is rated higher. The Trojans are ranked No. 19 in the KenPom rankings. 

Arizona leads the conference in points per game and the Trojans are second averaging over 78 points. USC leads the Pac-12 in made field goal percentage at 47.5%. They are seventh in three point percentage; all three of the other contenders make a higher percentage from three. Everyone can probably guess where USC is in free throw percentage – dead last at a miserable 64.7%. The Trojans are the top rebounding team in the league.

USC is 37th nationally in defensive efficiency, behind only CU in the conference at 35th. The Trojans are also a solid 49th in offensive efficiency but trail UCLA (20), Arizona ( 27), and Colorado (33).

Evan Mobley leads the conference with 8.3 rebounds per game and brother Isaiah is fifth averaging 7.3. Evan also leads the conference in blocks per game (3.1) and is fifth in field goal percentage at 59%.

The Trojans rely on their size on defense and on the boards.  Their shooting percentages are good, but like many teams they can get cold for several minutes at a time. Poor shooting in the last minutes against UConn and Colorado cost them both games. The Trojans have a lot of players who can score which allows them to avoid many long cold spells.

The Coaching Staff Has Done An Amazing Job

After the WSU game, I asked Coach Enfield whether the team has met his expectations at the season’s midpoint. He answered: “I didn’t know what to expect coming into the season. We only had one returning starter and he has missed most of the season so far. Isaiah played a lot off the bench last year but he is now a starter. Everybody else was brand new. I’m very proud of how they have come together as a team.”

Isaiah and Max Agbonkpolo average 14.7 points between them. Ethan Anderson has played so little that his stats are not yet impactful. The Trojans average 78 points per game, which means 63 points per game are coming from new players, which is remarkable. With only three returning players and two freshman the staff had to find transfers who could make immediate impacts and then convince them to come to USC without seeing the campus or meeting the coaches and players in person. The three grad transfers and one other transfer have all made significant contributions.

Tahj Eaddy has been a starter since the first game and is second on the team in scoring. Although expected to primarily play off the ball he has had to assume much more of the lead guard role in Ethan’s absence.

Isaiah White has started every game since Ethan’s injury. He is not a typical guard in size or style of play but he has had some success from outside. He is not a ball handler and has few turnovers, but is a good scorer and rebounder inside. He led the Trojans with 22 points against Arizona and he plays with the most energy on the team.

Chevez Goodwin has been the third front court player in the rotation with the Mobley brothers and is exactly as advertised. He plays hard, rebounds well and can score inside. The three bigs can match any team’s front court in the conference.

Drew Peterson transferred from Rice with two years of eligibility. He initially committed to Minnesota but the Trojans stayed after him and he ultimately signed with USC.  He is a self described stat sheet stuffer who provides scoring, ball handeling and rebounding as needed.

Noah Baumann transferred last year and sat out last season. He has filled a spot in the back court rotation. He made 45% from three in his two years at San Jose State, though he has been inconsistent so far this season. He will get open opportunities with the talent around him.

The virus delayed the beginning of indoor contact practice longer in LA County than perhaps anywhere else in the country. Yet in the first weeks of play the Trojans played well together on both ends. Each player knows his role on offense and his defensive assignments and they have played very unselfishly.

The coaching staff had to identify the players who would fit this team, reel them in and provide the coaching to achieve their 11-2 start to the season. They have done an amazing job and if the voting took place today Coach Enfield should be the Pac 12 Coach of the Year.

How Does This Team Compare With Last Season’s Team

The Trojans had a very successful season last year and were peaking at the end. They were one of the best defensive teams in the country. They finished 22-9, tied for third in the Pac 12 and appeared poised to do well in the conference tournament and win some games in the Big Dance. Before the first game this season Enfield said that this team would be better on offense than last year and could be as good or better on defense. So far Enfield has been proven right.

This team has many more scorers and is deeper than last season’s group. Last season the points came from Big O, Nick and Isaiah in the front court and Jonah, Daniel, Ethan and Elijah on the wings and in the backcourt. This season’s Trojans are deeper and have more players who can score.

Last season USC had good on ball defenders, size and athleticism inside, and an elite rim protector. This season they don’t have a perimeter defender as good as Jonah Mathews or maybe even as good as Elijah Weaver. Instead they defend outside with great size and very good athleticism. Last season Big O was a once in a decade or generation rim protector, but Evan has been as good or possibly better. Onyeka has more size and would not be muscled inside and was very quick off his feet. Evan has a  bigger wing span and can get to more shots and is quicker when stuck on the outside after a defensive switch. Evan has blocked shots far from the rim and often controls control the ball after his block.

Last year Onyeka and Nick played well together and formed a good team inside. Isaiah came off the bench and had a decent season but didn’t have the expected overall impact. This year’s threesome is at least as good. As anticipated, Evan and Isaiah have great chemistry and Isaiah is much improved in his second season and is at least as good as Nick on defense and on the boards. Nick was a more consistent scorer than Isaiah has been so far and Nick made a couple game winning shots. Isaiah has had some big offensive games this season but so far is less consistent.

It’s hard to compare Evan and Onyeka. They have comparable numbers on both ends but they get their points much differently. Evan would likely have scored more on last year team because the supporting cast was not as good. He has more offensive help than Big O had last season.  Chevez contributes at least as much as Isaiah did last year as the third big. This year’s front court may be a little better than last year, but it’s close. 

There are many more contributors in the back court and on the wings this season. When Ethan returns at full speed, he will team with Drew, Tahj, Isaiah White, Max and Noah. This group will score and rebound more than last year. They are deeper and less likely to have foul problems. Last year’s team had more natural ball handlers. Elijah played both on and off the ball and in crunch time Jonah often had the ball. Jonah and Elijah were better ball handlers than Tahj and perhaps on par with Drew. Playing the lead guard is not Tahj’s game.

As Enfield predicted this team is better offensively and comparable defensively and they have a chance to do special things.

This Season Could Have Been Very Different

Drew Peterson intended to red shirt this season because the Pac-12 announced the conference would not begin play until January and he didn’t want to use up one of his two remaining years on a half season. When the conference decided to start on November 25 and play 27 games along with the rest of college basketball, Drew applied for a waiver and became eligible just a few days before the first game. A few weeks later the NCAA announced that this season would not count for eligibility purposes.

What would this season be without Drew? He may be the second most important player on the team. Consider starting this season with Ethan, Tahj and Noah as the only true guards and then consider where the Trojans would have been when Ethan hurt his back. Things worked out very well for Drew and the Trojans.

Who Takes The Last Shot In The Final Seconds

Last year we know that if the Trojans designed a play for a final shot the ball would be in Jonah’s hands. He would shoot from the perimeter, drive and try to score inside or draw a foul, or pass to Onyeka if he was open. That was the design of the final possession against UCLA last season.

What would Enfield do in a similar situation this season? I think the ball would be in Drew’s hands. Getting the ball to Evan if he was able to get to a position from which he can score would likely be his first option, though Evan is not a good foul shooter. If Evan isn’t available then Drew would likely decide whether his best option is to drive a smaller defender inside or take an outside shot if he can get to one of his spots. Drew has the ability to drive to the rim or take a step back shot from about 10 feet. If the situation arises I’ll be surprised if someone else has the ball.

Preview Of The Oregon State Beavers

Tuesday’s game is the make up for the one originally scheduled in December. The Trojans and Beavers will play again nine days later at Galen. The Beavs beat ASU Saturday by one and are now 6-5 overall and 3-2 in the conference. They have beaten Cal twice and lost to WSU and to Arizona by 34 on the 14th. 

This is head coach Wayne Tinkle’s seventh season in Corvallis after a successful run at Montana. The only year his Beavers were over .500 in conference play was a 10-8 finish in 2016. That season was also their one NCAA Tournament appearance under Tinkle and they lost in the first round. The following year they fell to 5-27 and then began to rebuild. His last five teams have been built around his son, forward Tres, who left OSU as the all time scoring, rebounding and assist leader. Stephen Thompson Sr, a former Syracuse great, is one of Coach Tinkle’s assistants and Thompson’s two sons followed him to Corvallis. Stephen Jr left as the school’s all time leader in made three point shots with 231. Younger brother guard Ethan Thompson is now a senior and the best player on this year’s team. The question for Tinkle is how he will recruit competitive teams when the staff is out of sons

The Beavs NET ranking is 213. They are 116th in offensive efficiency and 284th in defensive efficiency. The team makes 42% of its shots, 35% from three and 73% from the line.

Ethan is a 6’4” senior who averages 16 points, 4 assists and 2.4 turnovers. He made the entry pass to bear ASU in the final seconds on Saturday. He is shooting 40% from the floor and 35% from three.

6’7” junior forward Warith Alatishe leads the team with 8 rebounds a game and averages over 9 points and 2 blocks. He makes 47% of his shots but rarely takes or makes a three.

6’3” sophomore guard Jarod Lewis is having a good season. He is the second leading scorer at over 12 points a game and has made 95% of his free throws. He makes a low 35% of his shots but a good 37% from three.

6’5” senior guard Zach Reichle is a good spot up shooter and averages almost 9 points, 4 boards, 3.8 assists and 1.8 turnovers. He is shooting a lower than expected 41% from the floor though he makes 35% from three and 79% of his free throws.

The Beavs primarily rely on two players in the front court. 6’10” junior Maurice Calloo averages 8 points and 3.4 rebounds. He has made 49% of his shots, 44% from deep, and 80% from the line. 6’10”, 240 pound sophomore Dearon Tucker averages almost 4 points, 2.9 rebounds and makes 50% of his shots and 70% from the line .

Prediction

This is a game the Trojans should and must win. Their inside scoring should overwhelm the Beavers and OSU has no answer for the Trojans size all over the court. Ethan Thompson drives the ball well and will often shoot a floater or kick it out, but he won’t have enough help to keep the game close. If the Trojans avoid taking the Beavers too lightly and play their game they will have no problem winning by a comfortable margin.