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Will the Trojans be a Tournament team in a shortened season?

By Rich Ruben

At first blush it shouldn’t be too hard to evaluate this coming season’s team. But on reflection, there are more questions about this team than any in Trojan history.

The Pac-12’s very early decision to cancel all fall sports caught many off guard. A decision on basketball wasn’t needed until shortly before fall practice was scheduled to begin in October, but it is likely that a later decision would have been the same. Last week Dave Gavitt, the NCAA Senior Vice President responsible for basketball, said, “We are going to have a tournament” in 2021. Most analysts believe that if he is right, the tournament could be pushed back a few weeks at most, but no one is currently expecting May Madness.

The NCAA and its members have already lost many hundreds of millions in revenue because the 2020 Tournament was cancelled and more losses seem likely in the next several months. If there are football bowl games and a CFB Playoff in January they will be drastically different. The Pac-12 and the Big 10, along with several smaller conferences including the MAC and the Mountain West, will not play football this fall, and other conferences may take the same path over the next month. Football TV revenue will be much lower.

Why Is Evaluating This Season More Difficult?

The first and by far most important reason is that the composition of the roster may change before January and possibly significantly. The Trojans have only 11 scholarship players and two are transfers who must sit out this season, though they can practice with the team. Both will be important players on the 2021-2022 team. If there is no Spring football, Drake London would be an addition, but how likely is it that football won’t be played in the Spring semester and basketball will?  Andy Enfield and staff were heavily pursuing a few five star prospects who signed with other schools very late in the Spring and by then USC’s second tier prospects had signed elsewhere. 

So, is USC’s nine player roster set? Maybe not. With no games until January, some high school and JC players may try to jump to college after the fall semester, and it would be surprising if the USC staff is not trying to line up options, particularly at guard.

On the flip side, a shortened season raises some big questions. Super recruit Evan Mobley could decide not to play a half season and instead prepare for the NBA draft. Absent serious injury, he is a clear one-and-done. This possibility seems more likely if the NBA draft is held in the spring or early summer than if if it is pushed back into the fall.

Evan’s older brother Isaiah could make a similar decision. Although he didn’t have the freshman season most expected, he could still decide to focus on his potential draft prospects and if he doesn’t like the feedback, use this season as a red shirt year. Or alternatively, either or both could transfer to a school in a conference that plays a full season if some conferences begin play in November and the NCAA allows immediate eligibility in these never-before-seen circumstances. One reason for optimism that both Mobleys will remain with the Trojans is it will be the last chance for the two brothers to play together on a team with their father, Eric, as one of the coaches.

There could be additional changes to the roster.  Potentially any player could transfer if other conferences play a full season and if a transfer is allowed immediate eligibility. USC’s three grad transfers on this year’s team may be especially at risk. They transferred to USC with the hope of playing in the NCAA Tournament.  If there isn’t an early announcement by the Pac-12 that there will be a shortened season beginning in January, any of them may look elsewhere, and if the conference decides not to play at all this season there is no way to predict if any or all three will stay at USC to play next year. In these crazy times, none of these players met in person with any of UC’s coaches before they signed in the spring. They may not feel especially loyal or connected to the staff, the team or the school.

There Are Other Uncertainties Besides The Roster

This season only three players return from last season’s team plus one player who redshirted last year and practiced with the team. Last season there were also only three returnees along with a player who had barely played in his prior two seasons due to injury. But the situations are not at all similar. This year three sophomores return.  The Trojans lost to graduation and the NBA their top five scorers and top two rebounders from last year. The three returning players this season averaged only 12.5 points per game between them. Last year’s returning players included seniors Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic, who were beginning their fourth seasons with the team and in Enfield’s system, plus sophomore Elijah Weaver who played a lot in his first year.

Last year the Trojans added five freshmen to the team including two five-star big men in Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley. Only two freshmen were added this year. Along with Evan Mobley, the Trojans signed three-star big man Boubacar Coulibaly.

Another factor will impact the chance to get off to a good start in January. Last summer before the fall semester the team traveled to Europe for ten days, played three games and accomplished a lot of team bonding. They also had more practice time as a result of the trip. NCAA rules allow one such trip every four years. Plus, USC played 13 non-conference games before starting Pac-12 play. If a season begins in January, at best there may be a couple non-conference games or likely none at all.

This season’s team will have to mesh on the fly. Some other Pac-12 teams also had a lot of turnover, most notably Arizona and Washington, but several teams bring back the bulk of last season’s production including UCLA, ASU, Colorado, Stanford and Utah. It will be harder for the Trojans to match last season and finish in a tie for third again this year.

Assuming The Current Roster Doesn’t Change, What Type of Season Can Be Expected?

Across the roster, the Trojans are very long and athletic. Seven of the nine players are 6-foot-6 or taller. Here is a breakdown of the current roster.

The Front Court

This season everything starts with Evan Mobley. If Evan misses any significant time the Trojans will likely finish in the bottom third of the conference. One respected college analyst recently put out a list of four players who have the best chance to be NCAA Player of the Year and Evan was on his list.  He is seven feet and can jump to 12.5 feet on the backboard. Some scouts have compared him to former NBA all star Chris Bosh, but I think a better comparison is to Anthony Davis. Evan is more athletic than Bosh and will block more shots. Like Davis he can score at all three levels, inside, mid range and outside the three point line. He runs the floor well and can drive to the basket from the perimeter. His only negative is that he needs to gain weight and strength. Last season, Big O’s game was based on his strength inside, very quick leaping ability and ability to make all types of shots inside with either hand. Okongwu averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. Evan should do better; if he played at USC for three years, he would likely eclipse Harold Miner and have the best college career of any Trojan ever.

Last season the Trojans rotated three big men, senior Nick Rakocevic, and freshmen Big O and Isaiah Mobley. Isaiah should have a much better season this year. He suffered a broken foot during the summer before last season and it impacted his play for much of the year. He is the Trojans’ leading returning scorer and rebounder at 6.2 points and 5.3 boards. Isaiah was a preseason honorable mention Pac-12 player (and Onyeka was not). He is far more talented than he showed last season

The third big man is grad transfer Chevez Goodwin from Wofford. He is 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds and plays almost exclusively inside. His 64% from the field last year was fourth best in the nation. He scored 12.9 points per game and led the team with 6.2 rebounds, and he scored in double figures in 22 games. He had 12 points at Butler and 10 points and 7 rebounds at Missouri. The Trojans will look to Goodwin as a big body inside to free up the Mobleys to roam away from the basket at times.

The final big man is 6-foot-10 freshman Boubacar Coulibaly. Originally from Mali, he has not played a lot of basketball and is still developing his game. He is very athletic and averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds last year but played in a league that did not include top talent. Most recruiting analysts believe he has a lot of potential. His composite national ranking was 215 and the number 39 center. Some analysts believe he is better right now that half the players ranked between 100-200, and has more upside than many of the top 100. With the talented players ahead of him he will have to earn playing time this year.

On balance this front court group can and should exceed the 36 points and 21 boards by last season’s front court. The Trojans will rely on their Big men and they will need to produce. This is by far USC’s best position group.

The Wings

The Trojans have two small forwards. Returning sophomore Max Agbonkpolo says he has grown an inch and is now 6-foot-9”. Grad transfer Isaiah White is 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds. Their skill sets complement one another. Max is a good shooter from the perimeter and is very fast down the court on the break. He played limited minutes last year behind Daniel Utomi and Elijah Weaver (Weaver also played guard at times, and Daniel played the four position when the Trojans went to a small lineup)

Isaiah led Utah Valley in scoring and rebounding last year averaging 14.5 points and 8.5 boards in 30 minutes a game, though he played primarily against weaker competition. He made only 22% of his threes, but shot almost 42% overall. He scores mostly inside and uses his body well to ward off defenders when he moves to the basket.

Last year Daniel and Elijah averaged almost 15 points per game between them. If Max takes a big step forward then this season’s pair can average as many points as last year’s wings and potentially more.

The Guards

This is the position group where there are not enough bodies and there will be a significant drop off from last year. Elijah Weaver’s decision to transfer late in the spring surprised the coaching staff. Although he did not put up big numbers and was replaced in the starting lineup mid season by Daniel Utomi, Elijah converted crucial shots in a few games including his off balance three against then conference leading Stanford to complete a 21-point second half comeback and send the game into overtime. He then scored most of the Trojan points in OT. Elijah was also very effective driving to the rim.

If Elijah was still on the team he would have been the presumptive starter at off guard. Now the Trojans will rely on point guard Ethan Anderson and two new players in a three guard rotation. Ethan was a big surprise last year. A late signee, he was far more productive than expected. He is also far more athletic than he looks. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he looks a little chunky, but he is such an exceptional leaper that the Trojans ran back door lobs to him last year. Although he averaged only 5.5 points, he made some very clutch shots in big games and helped carry the Trojans to their win in Westwood. He is also fearless and wants to be a leader.  Ethan will likely be the team’s best perimeter defender, and taking on the opponent’s best guard is the type of challenge he thrives on.

Last year the Trojans had fellow freshman point guard Kyle Sturdivant to spell Ethan, and Weaver and Jonah Mathews played point for stretches in some games. All three are gone, and the only other Trojan who can potentially run the offense this season is combo guard grad transfer Tajh Eaddy. Tajh is 6-foot-2, 165 pounds and transferred from Santa Clara. He started the second half of last season and played much better as a starter. He averaged 9.1 points overall, but 15.8 when he started. One cause for concern is that his shooting percentage declined each season.His three point percentage went from 42% to 38% to only 33% last year. His free throw percentage also declined slightly from a tremendous 92% to 83%; the 83% would lead SC almost every year. Overall he made 41% of his shots last season, which was better than Jonah Mathews’ percentage last year, though Jonah had a knack for making shots at key moments and was an elite perimeter defender.

The third guard is junior Noah Baumann who redshirted at USC after playing two years at San Jose State. Noah is 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds and is a classic spot-up shooter. He made over 45% of his shots in his two years and as a sophomore sunk a school record 81 threes and shot 45.5% from three. He has a very quick release and needs only a small opening to get his shot off. He owns the two best seasons’ percentage of made threes in San Jose State history and has a career high of 29 points and 8 threes in a game. He also is good from the foul line at over 77%. Noah averaged 10.8 points as a sophomore, and had the three highest scoring games for the Spartans that season. From watching practice last season, Noah does not appear to be particularly quick and may struggle defending athletic guards.

And One

Elijah Weaver’s late transfer leaves the Trojans short handed in the back court. If Coach Enfield is able to find an additional guard who can contribute this Spring it would be huge. This past spring, there was a rumor that one of the Trojans’ two four star guard 2021 commits might try to reclassify to enroll this fall. Perhaps one might now consider enrolling in January.

This team will go as far as Evan Mobley and Ethan Anderson take them. If either misses any games due to injury the Trojans will struggle. The Trojans will likely face full court pressure In many games, especially when Ethan is on the bench.

To have a successful season, USC will need all three of the returning sophomores to make big leaps in their play and all three of the grad transfers make meaningful contributions. The Trojans will also need Tajh Eaddy to provide quality back up at the point.

With the size on this team and the need to keep the guards out of foul trouble Coach Enfield might consider playing some zone this year, even though his man defense was very good last season. Ethan and Tajh are not big and Noah may struggle on defense. It might be worth experimenting with Max or Isaiah White out on top in the middle of a zone flanked by two guards with two big men inside.

There will be several good teams in the conference but likely no outstanding teams. In one preseason poll only UCLA and ASU are ranked, and neither too highly. Playing in empty arenas will be a benefit. Most other teams in the Pac-12 have better and louder home crowds. Not playing before big hostile crowds at Oregon and Arizona will more than make up for not having crowds in Galen for home games.