By Rich Ruben
Basketball practice begins Tuesday, and the exhibition game at Galen against always powerful Villanova is less than a month away. The first regular season game is November 5. This Trojan team’s success will depend heavily on the play of this recruiting class, so let’s compare this nine-man recruiting class with SC’s best classes over the last 50 years, and use the comparison to consider the impact this class may have on this season and the Trojans’ long term success.
It is very difficult to compare classes from different eras. The first challenge is to decide what criteria to use to measure each class. Is it high school recruiting rankings; best individual careers and team accomplishments at S.C.; or best overall basketball careers, including post SC? All three are legitimate measures. Also, NCAA rules and NBA draft rules have changed greatly. The 1968 class (one of SC’s very best) could not play as freshmen, their seasons were only 26 games, there were no conference tournaments, only one team per conference could play in the 16 team NCAA tournament, there was no shot clock or three point shot, and players could not enter the draft until after their senior year. Today, the regular season has 31 games, plus conference tournament games, the NCAA field has 68 teams and no limit on the number of teams from a single conference, and players can enter the draft at any point after their freshman season. Let’s keep in mind the changes in the college game, and use a blend of the above criteria to see where the analysis leads us.
The 1968 Class
By many measures, this could be SC’s best ever class. The four recruits were all freshmen, Paul Westphal, Ron Riley, Joe Mackey, and Monroe Nash. Surprisingly, Bob Boyd was able to assemble this group in the middle of the John Wooden run across town. Westphal was the jewel of the class; he was one of the few Southern California high school super stars to spurn Wooden and join the Trojans, and was USC’s first California “Mr Basketball”. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, has his number retired at S.C., and had a great career at every level. He was the 10th pick in the 1972 draft by the Celtics. He averaged over 16 points per game over his two and a half seasons for the Trojans; freshmen were not eligible when he played and he missed the last half of his senior season due to injury. Westphal was a five time NBA All Star, and later the head coach for Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento in the NBA
Ron Riley is far and away the best rebounder in SC history. The skinny 6’ 8” jumping jack grabbed 1067 boards in 78 games and is the career rebounding leader, often playing against multiple bigger players. For comparison, Taj Gibson is second, with 896 boards in 105 games. Riley was a two time first team All Conference player, and was inducted into the Conference Hall of Honor in 2007. He averaged over 14 points per game in his three year career. He was the 38th pick in the NBA draft, and played three seasons in the league.
Joe Mackey, a 6’6” small forward, had a very sweet outside shot, especially from the corners. He averaged over 13 points per game for his career, and almost 19 as a senior when he was second team All Conference. He was picked in the fourth round of the draft, but never played in the NBA. Monroe Nash played primarily off the bench at guard and small forward for the Trojans.
This group formed the nucleus of the 1971 team in their junior year that started 16-0, and was ranked number 1 in the country before giving up a late lead at home in a four point loss to UCLA. They also lost the last game of the year to the Bruins and finished with the best record of any SC team at 24-2, and ranked number 5 in the polls. Under then NCAA rules, only one team per conference could play in the post season. The year before, this group beat UCLA in only the second home loss ever for the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion.
The 1986 Class
They were called “The Four Freshman”, and were one of the very best classes ever to enter USC, but this group never met its potential while playing for the Trojans. Coach Stan Morrison won a big recruiting war to land top 5 national player, Parade All American , and California High School “ Mr Basketball “, 6’7” forward Tom Lewis from powerhouse Mater Dei. Lewis did not disappoint as a freshman, scoring the fourth most points by a freshman in school history, behind only OJ Mayo, Harold Miner and DeMar DeRozan. His 17.6 per game was better than DeRozan’s freshman average by 3.7 per. He also had the highest free throw percentage for any S.C. freshman(almost 85%) and made the most free throws. He made the Conference All Freshman team.
Morrison also landed Philadelphia high school stars and best friends Bo Kimble, a 6’4” shooting guard, and 6’7” leaper Hank Gathers, who was raw offensively, but as a freshman showed signs of potential stardom. Kimble averaged 12.1 points per game (tied for tenth best for an S.C. freshman), and Gathers 8.3. Kimble was also on the conference All Freshman team. The fourth member of the class was guard Rich Grande, who projected as a solid rotation player.
The ‘86 team had little talent coming back, and with the freshmen leading the way, struggled to a 11-17 record. The poor season led to the surprise firing of Morrison (who had coached the Trojans to a share of the Conference title the year before), and the hiring of nationally respected George Raveling from Iowa. Lewis, Kimble and Gathers all expressed unhappiness that the coach who recruited them was gone, and Raveling only made a luke warm effort to keep them. His attitude was that if they didn’t want to play for him, they could go elsewhere. And that is exactly what happened.
Lewis transferred to Pepperdine and averaged 18 points per game in his three years. He didn’t have the uber success which was predicted by almost every college analyst, but did have a very solid college career. He has been a high school and college coach in Southern California for many years.
Most fans know the Kimble and Gathers story. They transferred to LMU, and played in Paul Westhead’s run and gun system. The team usually scored over 100 points, and occasionally much higher. Gathers came into his own and led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a junior, only the second time that had ever been accomplished. He averaged over 32 points per game, scoring 49 in one game in which he also collected 26 rebounds. In his senior year against an LSU team with Shaquille O’Neal, he scored 48 in an overtime loss. He was a third team All American as a sophomore, and a second team All American as a junior and was the conference player of the year. In March of his senior season, during a WCC conference tournament game, Gathers suddenly collapsed to the floor and died hours later from a heart condition. His sudden death shocked the college basketball world.
Kimble had a great three years at LMU, averaging 22.2, 16.8 and a nation best 35.3 per game as a senior. After Gathers’ death, LMU became the darling of the 1990 NCAA tournament. Kimble led the short handed and undersized Lions to upset wins in the tournament and to the Elite Eight, including a 149-115 thrashing of defending national champion Michigan. He was the Conference Player of the Year as a senior, and a second team All American. Kimble was drafted by the Clippers with the eighth pick in the first round, but only played three seasons in the league, with marginal success.
There is no way to know whether these three players would have had the same type of success in a Raveling system if Raveling had made more of an effort to keep them, or if the players had been less demanding in seeking a major role in selecting Morrison’s replacement. What we do know is that SC’s chance to put together a string of successful seasons and perhaps change the school’s basketball trajectory was lost. Raveling’s teams won only 9, 7 and 10 games over the next three years. Raveling recruited Harold Miner in 1989, who became the Sports Illustrated National Player of the Year as a junior, and it isn’t hard to imagine that the Trojans could have become a national power if things had worked differently with the three players.
The 1998 Class
This was far and away Henry Bibby’s best class; this group led the Trojans to SC’s best NCAA Tournament run in the modern era, and Individually and collectively this class is the most decorated in S.C. history. That year Bibby added two JC transfers and three freshmen, and they were mostly a bit under the radar. The JC prospect the staff was really excited about was guard Quincy Wilder, who played one forgettable season for the Trojans. His JC teammate, 6’9” forward Brian Scalabrine, was recruited almost an afterthought.
The one highly rated freshman recruit was Sam Clancy, a 6’7”, 240 pound forward from Ohio. The other two freshmen were high school teammates from Weschester High, David Bluthental and 5’10” point guard Brandin Granville.
This class led SC to the elite 8 in 2001 as a six seed, beating a second seed Kentucky team before falling to Duke, the eventual National Champion. The next year, without Scalabrine, the team was a four seed, and a trendy pick to make the Final Four. But Bibby benched Bluthenthal and another starter for much of the second half due to “lack of effort”, and the Trojans were upset in overtime in the first round by UNC Wilmington. The 2001 team finished 24-10 and the 2002 team finished 22-10 and played in the conference tournament finals.
This group is all over the SC record books. Scalabrine has the 12th most points in SC history. He led the Trojans in scoring and rebounding in his first year as a sophomore. He was All Conference one year, and honorable mention the other two. He was the 35th pick in the NBA draft, and played in the League for 11 years, mostly off the bench, and was a member of the champion 2008 Celtics. Since retiring, Scalabrine has been an NBA assistant coach and is now a very respected NBA broadcaster
Sam Clancy was an undersized, tough, physical 6’7” inside player. He was a second team All American as a senior, and is third on S.C.’s career scoring and rebounding lists, and second in career blocked shots. He was the Conference Player of the Year as a senior, and a two time All Conference player. He was inducted into the PAC 12 Hall of Honor and the S.C. Hall of Fame. Clancy suffered a serious leg injury during individual team workouts before the NBA draft, and slipped to the mid second round. He never was the same player again, and didn’t play in the NBA, though he played overseas for several years.
David Bluthenthal was a smaller version of Bennie Boarwright. A 6’7” forward with a smooth outside shot, he teamed with Brandon Granville to lead Westchester to the LA City title. On occasion, he could also surprise inside. He tied the SC single game rebounding record with 28. His 1313 career points is 13th best at S.C, he is 9th on the career 3 point shots made list, and tied for fourth with a number of other players with 7 made threes in one game. He made 40.5 of his threes as a senior, the fourth best season percentage ever at S.C. After graduation, he played overseas for many years.
Brandon Granville was an undersized 5’9” point guard, who lacked blinding speed, but had a great understanding of the game, advanced court awareness, and very quick hands. He was a four year starter, and was All Conference Honorable Mention in his senior year. His leadership and steadiness were second to none, and his name is all over the S.C. record books. He is the all time career leader in assists and steals, fifth in made free throws, fourth in career threes made, and 13th in career scoring. He was the color commentator for S.C. radio broadcasts for a few seasons.
The 2007 Class
This group was Tim Floyd’s top class, but they did not experience the success many predicted. The two top recruits, OJ Mayo and Devon Jefferson, each left SC after one disappointing season. The Trojans lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to a good (but not great) Kansas State team.
The headliner was Mayo; he was the consensus first or second rated recruit in the country. He is the highest rated player to ever sign with Troy, and was selected to the All Conference Team as a freshman. He was a volume shooter, taking the second most shots ever in one season by an S.C. player, behind only Harold Miner’s National Player of the Year junior season. Mayo made a solid 80 % of his free throws and averaged 20.7 points, the most ever by an SC freshman. He is in the SC freshman top ten in almost every offensive category. Mayo was an expected one and done, and was drafted third overall (the highest any S.C. player has ever been drafted), but he never achieved NBA stardom. And, perhaps most importantly, he was at the center of the extra benefits controversy that led to Tim Floyd’s departure and SC’s self imposed sanctions on the basketball team.
The other big time recruit, Devon Jefferson, was a very athletic forward who left school after one season in which he was All Conference Honorable Mention and All Freshman. He shot 57% from the field and 70 % from the line and averaged 12 points per game. Jefferson had off the court problems, and left school to enter the draft, but was not selected. He never played in the NBA, though he did play overseas for a number of years.
Marcus Simmons was a top 100 recruit , and was known as a very tough defensive guard. At 6’6” he usually played against the opponent’s top guard or small forward, and almost always held his own. He was the conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2011 and significantly improved his offensive game over his career. He played in the NBA Development League for several seasons and overseas. Mamadou Diarra was the fourth member of the class. He was a very skinny 7’0” post player, but appeared to lack PAC 10 level ability and left after two seasons.
How Does the 2019 Class Compare?
There are several things we know or can predict for this large class. To my knowledge, SC has never brought in nine players in any single season. This was done out of necessity, as only four players return from last year. Let’s consider the strength of the class by dividing it into its two components- the six freshmen and the three transfers.
The transfers were brought in to fill two big needs: Division 1 playing experience and three point shooting. Both of the grad transfers, 6’ 1” Quinton Adlesh and 6’5” Daniel Utopia, would already be on SC’s career three point made list had they played their first three seasons with the Trojans. They both come from schools in lesser leagues, but are proven scorers. If Derryck Thornton and Jordan Usher were still with the team, there is a good chance that neither would have been recruited. The Trojans need significant contributions from both for the team to have a good season. The third transfer, 6’6” guard Noah Bauman, will redshirt, and then have two years of eligibility left. It is anticipated he will be a key contributor.
The two headliners in the “Freshman 6” are five star, top 20 forwards 6’10” Isaiah Mobley (the son of assistant coach Eric Mobley) and 6’9” Onyeka Okongwu (photo above). They are the best pair of big men to ever join the Trojans in the same season. Okongwu weighs 245, and he brings a physical inside presence that the Trojans have recently lacked. He is a two time California “Mr Basketball”. Mobley was a McDonald’s All American and has a good all around game. He averaged over 19 points per game over his last two seasons, playing alongside his younger brother who is also a very talented big man and has committed to S.C. for next season. Mobley averaged 13 1/2 rebounds per game as a senior. The success for this season and for this recruiting class may depend in large part on how well these two stars play this year, and how long they stay at S.C. A recent Sports Illustrated article projected they could both be one and done.
The freshman class includes two highly regarded wing players, top 50 recruit 6’8” small forward Max Agbonkpolo and 6’5” 205 pound shooting guard Drake London. London is on a football scholarship, and has seen playing time at wide receiver. Watch for number 15; he looks tall and rangy on the football field. As a high school senior he averaged 29 points and 12 rebounds per game. The big question regarding London is how much basketball will he play. The first basketball game on November 5 is a few weeks before football season ends, and it is difficult to predict when he will be ready to play basketball and how much he can contribute.
Agbonkpolo is a slender 180 lbs. He has a very good outside shooting touch, can drive to the basket, and handles the ball well for his size. He may be a smaller, faster, more athletic Bennie Boatwringht. How he develops over the next few years might have as much as anything to do with the success of this class.
The other two freshmen are three star point guard, Ethan Anderson, the LA City Player of the Year, at 6’1” and 200 pounds, and 6’3” four star point guard Kyle Sturdivant from Georgia. Both of these players have strong bodies and won’t be easily pushed around. Anderson averaged almost 21 points per game, and over 6 rebounds and 6 assists as a senior. Sturdivant averaged 16 points per game.
What Can We Predict for this Recruiting Class?
On paper, before any of the new recruits have played for the Trojans, this is the best and deepest class to ever sign with the Trojans. There has never been a class with two five star freshmen, plus a good deal of potential at every position. But the question is whether this class will turn out to be the best ever when they move on and we look back over their careers
Can this class match the 24-2 record of the 1968 class, or reach the Elite 8 like the 1992 class? “The Four Freshmen” team finished under .500, and then disbanded. The ‘68 and ‘92 classes had their biggest seasons when the recruits were juniors, and important players were added to supplement these two classes and create very good teams. The overall success of the 2919 class will likely depend on several factors: whether Mobley and Okongwu can perform at a very high level as freshmen and whether they return for at least their sophomore seasons. Second, whether the Trojans can add additional top talent over the next couple of years. SC has a commitment from Mobley’s brother for next season, who is the current number 1 rated prospect in the 2020 class. Troy is also in the hunt for a few other very highly rated 2020 players, and a good transfer shooting guard is already in school and will be eligible next year.
Third, this year’s team needs to avoid major injuries to key players. The Trojans are deeper at guard than in the front court, but if Jonah Mathews goes down for any length of time, much of this year’s leadership would be lost. If either of the freshmen forwards or Nick Rakocevic misses several games, the lack of front court depth will be exposed.
Fourth, the eight new eligible players need to provide inside offense and defense, ball handling, and outside shooting; in effect, they are needed to contribute almost everywhere. Let’s remember that last year’s Duke team had three freshmen drafted first overall, third and tenth. Even with Zion Williamson, and good talent around the freshmen, Duke lost in the Elite 8, and none of SC’s recruits have Williamson’s generational talent.
However, the number of players in this recruiting class and the variety of their skill sets could make this class very special. And, three of the four returning players on this year’s team are proven contributors, which is much more than “The Four Freshmen” class had around them. If several of the recruits can produce as freshmen, with this year’s depth at the wings and in the backcourt, the Trojans may be poised for a really good season. As the new players gain experience playing together, this team should show good improvement as the season goes on.
It’s even harder to predict the impact this class will have over their entire SC careers. How long will the top players stay? How much will each individual player improve over his career? Will any transfer out? And how will this class impact future recruiting?
None of SC’s other top recruiting classes had great seasons when the players were freshmen, though this class also includes two good grad transfers. There have been several times over the years when it looked as if the Trojans were on the verge of sustained success, but something always happened. Some fans sigh and ask whether S.C. basketball is jinxed. This group can put that talk to rest.