By Rich Ruben
After 16 games a lot has become clear about this Trojan team. There are still some questions and the Trojans play a stronger schedule of conference teams in February and the first Saturday in March and a lot is still to be decided. So far, this is what I’ve seen.
Evan Mobley – In the last few games Evan has shot the ball very well from the foul line. As a result he should be involved and get touches on every key possession. The coaches want him to be aggressive and look for his shots. The Trojans will need Evan to increase his points per game over the next month. On defense a lot of Evan’s blocks are away from the rim which he gets just after the ball leaves the shooter’s hand. He is very athletic and a quick leaper and is able to control the ball after many of his blocks. Evan does not have the body strength to handle big physical opponents on defense and don’t expect him to be the primary defender against someone like Oscar da Silva.
Isaiah Mobley – He has improved greatly since last season but he still isn’t NBA ready or likely to be selected in this year’s draft. He weighs more and is more physical than his brother and is the Trojans’ best interior defender. Isaiah is two inches shorter than Evan, not as athletic, does not get off his feet as quickly and does not have the same variety of shots on offense. Isaiah is a better passer but is more foul prone. Except for an occasional shot from three almost all of his shots are within 5-7 feet of the basket yet he is only making 45% of his attempts. He is only slightly better from the line at 46% and therefore can’t be on the floor on key late possessions in tight games.
Drew Peterson – Drew had played at a high and consistent level but the last three games raise big red flags. He played poorly in this stretch and it appears to be impacting him mentally. Drew is 5-24 from the floor in these games, only attempted 4 free throws and has committed 8 turnovers against 7 assists. If Drew does not return to form quickly the Trojans will struggle to win several of the upcoming games. A few weeks ago I suggested that the ball would be in Drew’s hands on a final possession with the game on the line and that was the case in the loss to OSU. If confronted with the same situation today someone else will control the final possession.
Drew Peterson And Not Isaiah Mobley – A TV commentator on one of the recent Trojan games suggested that Isaiah reminded him of former Bruin and current Memphis Grizzly Kyle Anderson. I don’t see that at all. Until his recent slump I thought the player Drew Peterson most closely resembled was Anderson. They both big guards who can score from outside and can get to the rim and are good rebounders. Anderson is two inches taller, but Drew is quicker and more athletic.
Chevez Goodwin and Isaiah White – They have both played as advertised, with a lot of energy and passion. Isaiah has shot better from outside and at the line than he did at Utah Valley. I expected Chevez to be a tougher inside defender with his physicality and size than he has shown. Both are good rebounders especially on the offensive end. Chavez has good footwork around the rim, and Isaiah is quicker on defense than expected. Chevez is bad enough from the foul line that there is a risk having him on the floor late in close games.
Tahj Eaddy – How do we reconcile what Tahj has done this season with the fact that he didn’t start for much of last season at Santa Clara? He averaged 15 points as a junior and 15 again as a senior when inserted back into the starting lineup in the second half of last year at SCU. He can create his own shot and is very good from the line and has been the Trojans’ best offensive guard.
Ethan Anderson – His play could be the deciding factor in how this season finishes. He is starting to round back into form and played well in the second half of the last game. At his best he is the team’s best ball handler and can score outside and get into the lane and find an open teammate.
Max Agbonkpolo– Max is playing with much more confidence this season and is much improved in every area except the one he was known for coming out of high school: he has not shot the ball well and is settling for too many threes instead of attacking the defense. He looks quicker on defense this year and his length helps control smaller guards. He has rebounded well and is finding open teammates. If Max can start scoring it would be a big lift for the Trojans.
The Trojans Lack A Big Time, Reliable Outside Threat – The Trojans know they can rely on Evan to score in nearly every game but they don’t have a guard who they can rely on in the same way. Drew, Ethan and Tahj are all capable of scoring from outside or driving the ball into the lane, but none of them is a good enough scorer to carry the team if the defense neutralizes the Trojan front court.
If The Trojans Need A Late Score… – A few weeks ago it was obvious that Drew would have the ball at the end of close games. But until Drew returns to form Ethan will likely get the ball and be asked to play a two man game with Evan and make the right pass or shot. Tahj has not displayed the court vision to put the ball in his hands.
Boubacar Coulibaly, Josh Morgan and Reese Waters – These three young players will likely not play again this season except in the case of injury or a one sided game. All three are gaining considerable experience practicing against good players, which will give them a head start on next season.
USC Is Not A Final Four Team – Some fans have suggested that the Trojans can make the Elite Eight or Final Four but I don’t see it. This team has depth and talent but the elite teams have either several high level five star players or a group of upper classmen who grew up together in the same system.
It is more likely that the Trojans will stumble and be a low tournament seed than they will get the improvement needed by several players to make a big post season run. For a deep run, Evan must be aggressive and take over games from the inside and Isaiah Mobley needs to shoot a much higher percentage from the floor and make free throws often enough that he can be on the court late in close games. Drew needs to regain his earlier form, Ethan needs to round into shape and perform at the level the coaches expected in November and Max needs to find ways to score. The Trojans are good enough on defense to win most games but they need to be much better offensively. The three grad transfers are providing what they were brought in to do, though more of the same would obviously be welcome.
For the third time this season the Trojans are getting ready to play the Cardinal and as of now it looks like this time there will be a game. Through Sunday’s games the Trojans have a NET ranking of 24 and the Cardinal 53. Some teams’ rankings are hard to understand. Colorado lost to Utah on Saturday and is still 17. Colgate (yes, COLGATE) is 6-1 on the season and ranked 11. Presumably things will make more sense by the first week of March.
A week and a half ago in my January 20 column I provided a detailed preview of the Cardinal, but there are a few updates. In the last two weeks and without three of their starters the Cardinal beat UCLA by 1, beat Arizona on the road 73-64 and lost 79-74 to ASU on Saturday in Tempe after leading most of the game. Jerod Hasse has done an outstanding job with his short handed team and is the clear favorite to be named conference coach of the year. But if the Cardinal falter and the Trojans finish strong Andy Enfield is his closest competition. Enfield’s team is an almost complete rebuild yet every player has bought in and no one is displaying any selfishness.
There is no update yet whether any of the missing players will be available on Tuesday. Senior point guard Daejon Davis is the team’s second leading scorer, freshman five star forward Ziaire Williams is the third leading scorer and 6’6” guard Bryce Willis is the fifth leading scorer. Davis and Willis are recovering from injuries and Williams’ absence has not been publicly explained.
Recall that USC lost the game at Oregon State at the foul line. Stanford almost beat ASU at the line. The Cardinal scored 75 points on only 21 made shots, were 2-15 from three and committed 20 turnovers. ASU shot 50% from the floor and 6-19 from three. Stanford hung around because they drew fouls and converted. The Cardinal were a remarkable 31-34 (91.2%) from the line and most of their successful shots were dunks and other shots at the rim.
ASU and Arizona both lack size and Oscar da Silva and Jaiden Delaire pounded the boards and got high percentage shots and lots of trips to the line. The Trojans are a much bigger team than either Arizona school and USC’s strength is inside. Expect Isaiah Mobley to guard da Silva and the Trojans to try to get the Stanford star in foul trouble. If USC plays its usual good defense and keeps Stanford off the line than the Trojans should get the win. None of the three missing starters travelled to Arizona last week and presumably if any are able to play they will not be at their best
It should help the Cardinal returning to Palo Alto this weekend. They have been living in suitcases in different hotels and playing ‘home” games in Santa Cruz. Stanford is 6-4 in conference play and can’t afford to lose many more games. The Trojans are 7-2 and need every win they can get in the race for the conference title and post season seeding. The teams are currently scheduled to play again at Galen on Monday, February 22; this game has been squeezed into the Trojans’ schedule. USC will play the Arizona schools the preceding Thursday and Saturday at home and play at Colorado on the 25th and at Utah on the 27th.