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USC rolls over Cal; What we learned about the Trojans

By Rich Ruben

The Trojans played their most complete game of the season in their conference home opener, defeating the Bears 88-56. It was the largest victory margin over Cal since 1972. Jonah Mathews and Daniel Utomi led the way shooting a combined 7-11 from three. Jonah finished with 19 points including making all 6 of his free throws and handing out 3 assists. Daniel finished with a season best 17 points and 7 boards. The only other Trojan in double figures was Onyeka Okongwu with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks.

SC did not lead by double figures until the four minute mark of the first half when a three by Daniel extended the lead to 12. The margin remained in double figures for the rest of the game. Daniel opened up defending the Bears’ best player, guard Matt Bradley, and Jonah and Elijah Weaver also took on Bradley at times. The trio did a great job, limiting Bradley to 5-13 from the field including 2-6 from three. Bradley finished with 13 points, well below his season average.

The Trojan offense was pretty balanced. Isaiah Mobley and Max Agbonkpolo were both 2-2 from three. As a team, the Trojans made 6-8 from long range in the first half, and 14-23 for the game, by far the best perimeter shooting of the season. Big O led the team in rebounding, and Isaiah also collected 7 boards. The defense was also very good, holding the Bears to 38% from the field and 5-25 from three.

With the win the Trojans are now 14-3 and tied for second place at 3-1 in conference play. The Saturday afternoon game against undefeated Stanford gives Troy an opportunity to move into a first place tie after three weeks of conference play.

What We Learned About The Trojans

– SC out rebounded Cal 45-28, due in large measure to the Bears’ poor shooting. Cal rarely sent anyone to the offensive boards, opting to drop back and try to limit the Trojans’ fast break opportunities. SC outscored Cal 13-7 in fast break scoring. 

– Cal followed the same defensive strategy employed by Washington and UCLA by trying to keep the ball away from Big O and Nick inside, and double teaming when the Trojans were able to find the big men. As a result, the pair took only 15 shots, but for the second game in a row, the strategy left plenty of open space for the guards, and SC made the Bears pay. Cal came into the game relying on their defense, but they could not shut down the the Trojans.

– Daniel started for the second straight game in place of Elijah, and continued his very good recent play. In preseason practice I thought Daniel would have a big impact on the Trojans’ season, and it is obvious in the last six games that he has found his comfort level.  He was a very good three point shooter at Akron, and at 6’6” and 225 pounds, he can be effective inside and on the boards. After the game, Daniel said he doesn’t care if he starts or comes off the bench.

– For a least one night, the Trojans were able to solve one of their season long problems. SC has often not been able to extend leads and put away opponents, instead letting them hang around and stay in games. They did not let up against Cal, and kept the pressure on all game.

– Andy was a bit feisty after the game. He acknowledged that the freshmen point guards struggled. They combined for 9 of the Trojans’ 14 turnovers. Ethan Anderson missed both of his shots from the field, but sank all 4 of his free throw attempts. Kyle Sturdivant made one three pointer on three shots. They both drove into the lane several times and found no where to go, getting stripped or being forced into poor passes.

– After the game Andy said that the two point guards are better players than Jordan MacLaughlin or Julian Jacobs were as freshmen, and both have done a great job so far. He said SC wouldn’t have beaten LSU without Kyle or UCLA without Ethan. He said that both will be great players and in coming years they will be on the floor together. Still, there may be some cause for concern. Neither played well on the Washington trip. Assistant coach Eric Mobley repeated before the game what Ethan said after the UCLA game, and empathized that the coaches want Ethan to take more shots. 

– The Trojans missed their first four free throws, but made 9 of the next 10 to close the half at 64% and the game at 68%. Before the game, Eric said they work hard on free throws every day.

– Andy complimented Elijah Weaver who made 1-2 from three and 3-4 from the line and totaled 8 points and 4 boards. After the game Andy said that Daniel will remain “permanently for now” in the starting lineup, and pointed out that Elijah and Daniel are playing about equal minutes. Daniel got his 17 points in 21 minutes, which is tremendous production. Elijah played 20 minutes.

– Andy said that Isaiah gave the Trojans a big lift in the first half with his defensive play.

– Although Andy downplayed the inability to get good shots for O and Nick, there should be some concern. Cal does not have a strong inside presence, yet the Trojans had only 6 offensive rebounds. They will see much better big men as the conference season continues. When asked about it, Andy said that they can’t rebound made shots, but SC also missed 26 shots and a bunch of free throws.  Cal matched the 18 points SC scored in the paint, which is far too few for this Trojan team. Jonah said after the game that they expect Stanford to double team in the post, which means the guards will need to score and the Trojans find ways to get the ball inside. It is likely that most teams will play the Trojans this way.

– Eric answered a question about O’s future by saying that if the NBA comes calling, O will likely leave after this season. The “comes calling” statement is somewhat ambiguous, which was probably intentional.

– before the game, Eric was asked who is coaching the big men. He said that it is Andy in the first instance with help from himself. The questioner responded in a serious tone by saying that Andy is doing a bad job, and that Isaiah is a better player than he has shown. That comment got a smile from Eric.

– The pace of the game was good over the first 30 minutes and it was entertaining. The referees apparently decided to become more involved and fouls were called in bunches over the final ten minutes, making it almost unwatchable.

– Andy and Jonah both said that the hot shooting started last Sunday against UCLA. Hopefully this will continue.

– SC’s NET ranking moved up 13 places to 52. Their RPI is 23; Stanford is 28. SC has a huge opportunity to make a jump against Stanford. A new bracket has SC an 8th seed. The Trojans do not play Stanford on the road, which increases the importance of Saturday’s game.

– Andy said Jonah is playing like an all league guard. In response to a question about why SC doesn’t generate more turnovers, Jonah said that they don’t play the passing lanes as much as some other teams, wanting to prevent back door cuts and limiting open looks outside. Jonah also said he likes playing on the road more than at home. He enjoys it when opposing crowds are noisy and trying to impact the game.

– Andy and Jonah both said the larger crowd Thursday night support was helpful. The lower level student section was full. The total attendance was 4300, still less than half of capacity, but better than earlier games. Andy put in a plug for fans to turn out for Saturday’s big game.

– Watching Cal play, it seems inconceivable that they beat Washington. This is at best an average Cal team.  Andy said SC’s effort against the Huskies put offensive basketball back 5 decades.

– Jeff Trepagnier and Desmond Farmer were at the game.

– Before the postgame media conference the Pac 12 TV crew was having audio problems in the media room.  For about 5 minutes, they put on a comedy show trying to correct whatever was wrong. I couldn’t help thinking this was a good demonstration of the conference ineptitude.

Milestones

Jonah now has 1183 career points, good for 26th in SC history. He is 21 behind Maurice Williams. Nick has 1162 points, and is 29th, just behind Bryon Wesley. Nick has 814 career rebounds for seventh place, 7 behind Ronnie Coleman. Jonah’s 215 career threes are fifth in SC history. He has 3 less than fourth place Brandon Granville.

And One

I met a family from Philadelphia at the UCLA game who were rooting for the Trojans. They had just left their daughter who was starting at SC for the Spring semester. I wondered why these very new Trojan Family members demonstrated far more interest in the Trojan basketball team than the great majority of SC fans. This team is 14-3 and exciting to watch, yet the coaches and players express gratitude that 4,300 people attended the Cal game.

For years, SC’s poor attendance was blamed on how far the Sports Arena was from the dorms and the Row and his how run down it was, both fair criticisms. Galen opened over a decade ago, and though there was an attendance spike the first few years, the attendance is back to Sports Arena levels, with some non conference “crowds” under 3000. When SC plays at home, there isn’t a home court advantage other than the Trojans don’t have to play in front of a hostile crowd. It’s time for the SC fan base to get involved!