By Rich Ruben
What a difference a week makes. Two weeks ago, the Trojans came home from Oregon after a double overtime loss against the Top 15-ranked Ducks in which they had chances to win in regulation and in the first overtime. Two days later, the Trojans shot the ball unbelievably well and easily beat the Beavers. But this past week everything turned and SC had offensive struggles in a close win over Utah and in a blowout loss to 20th-ranked Colorado. Which are the real Trojans? Are we making too much of the two game home struggles? I think there are real questions about the Trojans on offense, which have led to three 20 point plus losses and some wins which were closer than they should have been.
The Trojans take their 17-5 record (6-3 in PAC 12) and second place conference standing on the road to Tucson on Thursday and Tempe on Saturday night. The record is a bit deceiving, as the Trojans have struggled to score at various times throughout the season. With a few exceptions, the defense has been good and has carried the team to several wins. Having a real rim protector behind a set of good perimeter defenders has been a successful defensive formula.
The offensive struggles are mostly due to two factors. First, the guards have not shot the ball well. Going into the season, Andy repeatedly said that this would be a good shooting team. The evidence two thirds thru the season does not prove him right. Elijah is the only guard shooting over 40% from the field; he is making 42% of his shots, due primarily to his ability to find holes in the defense and create shots on drives to the basket. Daniel is making 39% of his shots, Kyle 38%, Jonah 37%, Ethan 36%, and Quinton 30%. The shooting percentage for Jonah and Daniel inside the arc are particularly poor, and Jonah has taken the most shots (241) on the team. The three point numbers are somewhat better – Jonah 37%, Daniel and Quinton 35%, Elijah and Ethan 33%, and Kyle 23%.
The coaching staff might take the three point shooting numbers, but the overall shooting percentages from the field have caused big problems. These poor results include all shots, including layups and dunks. It is hard to win when your guards cannot make shots, which is the reason the defense has had to carry the Trojans to several wins.
The second major problem for the Trojans on offense is that Onyeka is not getting enough touches or shots. He has 61 shots in his last 7 games, which includes overtime and double overtime games. In his first 6 games, against admittedly weaker competition, he had 64 shots. O is double teamed almost every time he gets the ball, but he is not doubled before he has the ball, and still the Trojans do not get him enough touches. The passes to him from the high post have markedly decreased, and there are no lobs or back door passes to him in the half court. His quick spin shots which help him beat double teams have also greatly decreased. And it doesn’t help that he is not able to find his fellow bigs inside when he is double teamed.
Another reason SC needs to get the ball inside to O is that he draws a lot of fouls, and he makes his free throws. Jonah’s recent free throws success has raised his average to over 77%, but Big O is next on the team at over 73% among those who have shot over 15 times from the line. He has 22 more attempts than the next Trojan and 26 more makes.
Jonah has taken 241 shots so far this season, Big O 221 and Nick 195. The Trojans need to get more from their best offensive weapon, who is also the player who makes 15% more of his shots than any other Trojan.
There are only 9 games left in the regular season, and there may not be enough time to solve either problem. If the guards have shot poorly for 22 games, it is hard to imagine there is a fix lurking, though more set plays involving a screen or double screen to free shooters would help, as would more drives by the guards and passes to outside shooters instead of forcing poor inside shots. It would also help if the Trojans had quicker ball movement. Each possession in front court, whether they have had to beat a press or not, usually starts with one of the ball handlers dribbling for several seconds at the top of the key with little movement from the other players.
Getting Big O more touches should be the easier problem to correct. The lob pass to O is now rarely used. Having him involved in pick and rolls could get him more touches. Since he is not yet a great passer, clearing the rest of the Trojans away from the basket might make it easier to avoid double teams or easier for O to find an open man. Finally, his very quick spin moves which he used successfully far more often earlier in the season can allow him to beat some double teams.
The offense must improve for the Trojans to finish this season strong, and win some games in the post season. Perhaps I am exaggerating the problem, since SC scored well recently against Oregon, OSU and UCLA. But they made only one field goal in the two overtimes at Oregon, shot miserably in the blowout losses to Washington and CU, and did not shoot well in the close Utah win.
Preview Of The Arizona Wildcats
This is Sean Miller’s 11th season at Arizona, and he is 12-5 against SC. They have a new roster, after finishing 17-15 last year and tied for eighth in the league. Like the Trojans, the Wildcats have lost three conference games, but were very close in two, losing by 1 at ASU and at Oregon. They surprisingly were soundly beaten by 17 in Corvallis, but they beat CU by 21 at home. They are 15-6 overall, 10-1 at home, and have a NET ranking of 8, compared to SC’s 45.
It’s hard to understand how Miller is still at Arizona. In 2018 when the FBI scandal broke, a tape recording became public in which it sounded clearly like Miller was asking how much money it would take to sign star center Deandre Ayton the prior year. Miller sat out a few games, and the school then threw its support behind him and he was back coaching the team. It will be interesting to see how the FBI and resulting NCAA investigation winds up for Miller and the school.
The Cats are led by three very good freshmen who are all projected to be first round picks this spring. 6’11” Zeke Nnaji plays a lot like Big O. He is very explosive off his feet, and has a good all around game. He is averaging 16 points, 9 boards and is making 62% of his shots.
Two freshmen lead the back court. 6’3” guard Nico Mannion is a very clever passer with great vision, and averages 14 points and 5.7 assists, and makes 44% of his shots, 35% from three, and 85% from the line. 6’6” Josh Green is a very good shooter when he is on, but has been inconsistent. He also drives well to the basket, and overpowers many guards. He averages 11.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists, though he is only making 41% from the field and 30% from three. He makes 69% from the line.
The other starters are 6’10” red shirt senior Chase Jeter and 6’9” Stone Gettings. Jeter is in his second year with the Cats after transferring from Duke. He converts on 56% of his shots. Grad transfer Gettings has had his best scoring games in the last few weeks, including 19 in one game. He is averaging 6 1/2 points and 3 1/2 rebounds and makes 52% of his field goals and 47% from three.
Gettings is one of three Cats shooting over 38% from three. The others are 6’0” grad transfer Max Hazzard from UCI and transfer Jamari Baker Jr from Kentucky. Miller has also added transfers from Georgetown, Nevada, and UNC Asheville to fill out the roster.
This team is very athletic, and explosive on the break. In order for SC to win, they will need to overcome the always very loud capacity crowd at McKale Center, keep turnovers down and make the Wildcats play half court offense, and limit fouls to keep them off the line. It will be a tall order to win this game in Tucson, and everything would need to go right for the Trojans. SC desperately needs a split on this trip. Although possible, it is doubtful this is the one they win. They will get another shot at the Wildcats at home at the end of the month which should be a much more winnable game.
Preview of Arizona State Sun Devils
ASU, led by fifth year head coach Bobby Hurley, is 13-8 on the season and 4-4 in the PAC 12. The Devils’ NET ranking on Tuesday is 58. Hurley has a 3-3 record against the Trojans. He is a one man show on the sideline. After practically every play, he stomps up and down, screams at the officials, or folds his arms and glares. If there is one coach in the league it is easy to dislike, Bobby is the guy.
Last year the Devils finished 23-11, and 12-6 in league play, and they are 8-2 at home so far this year. The Sun Devils are not an especially good shooting team. They make 42% of their shots, a very low 30 1/2% from three, and only 68% from the line.
ASU has three returning players who help carry carry the load along with one newcomer. The leader and star is very quick 6’ junior point guard Remy Martin. He has more than doubled his scoring average from last season, averaging 19 points per game, with 3 1/2 rebounds and 4 assists. Martin has been a volume shooter, taking 50% more shots than any other player on the team.
Junior Remello White is the Devils’ best inside player. He is 6’8”, 235 pounds, and looks thicker. He is averaging 12 1/2 points and 9 boards, and is shooting 64% from the field. He only takes 6-7 shots per game, but goes to the line far more than Martin. He can’t match O’s quickness, but plays hard and physical. Rob Edwards began his career at Cleveland State, and is in his second season playing at ASU. The 6’5” senior guard is averaging 10.7 points and 3 rebounds, shooting around 36% from the field and from three.
JC transfer 6’3” junior guard Alonzo Verge has given the Devils a lift. He scored 43 points earlier this year against St Mary’s, and averages 12 1/2 points, 3 1/2 rebounds and 2 1/2 assists. He is making 41% of his shots, but only 21% from three.
Many SC fans will remember 6’8” sophomore forward Taeshon Cherry from San Diego who had committed to SC and then switched to ASU after the FBI probe became public and his name was caught up in the scandal. At the time, he was the Trojan’s highest rated recruit in the 2018 class, but was eventually eclipsed by Kevin Porter Jr. As a freshman Cherry averaged 6 points, but his numbers are down this season. He plays 20 minutes a game, but is averaging less than 5 points and 3 rebounds, and is making only 35% of his shots and 23% from three
The Sun Devils have been inconsistent so far, losing last weekend to WSU at home by 2, but beating U of A at home the prior week. This is a game the Trojans can win. If SC can control Martin and force him to take a lot of shots to get his points, force contested shots from outside, and not let Edwards or Verge get too hot, the Trojans can control the game. I like SC to win in Tempe and get the road split.