Rebuilt USC Basketball Program On 'the Right Path'

A historic season for USC’s men’s basketball team reached its apex last week.

The Trojans pulled off another dramatic comeback, upending SMU after a game-winning 3-pointer by Elijah Stewart in the final minute to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32. Two days earlier, they had rallied from 17 points to top Providence in a tournament play-in game.

Amid a celebratory locker room at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., someone had written, “26,” on a whiteboard.

It was for a program-record 26th victory.

Through the first four seasons of Coach Andy Enfield’s tenure, USC has seen yearly improvement. It won 11 and 12 games in his first two seasons, before a breakout 21-win campaign a year ago that resulted in its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a half-decade. It again returned to the tournament this March and this time advanced past the first round.

“I feel we’re on the right path,” guard Jonah Mathews said.

As the Trojans were outlasted in a season-ending, 82-78 defeat by No. 3 seed Baylor on Sunday, their comeback attempt fell short in the final minutes.

“We showed everybody we can compete with the best of the best,” forward Chimezie Metu said, “and now it’s just a matter of everyone going back, and getting better, and coming back next year working even harder to try to get to a national championship game.”

Will the upward trajectory continue?

“Everybody comes back, we’ll be good,” point guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “We’ll be right up there.”

WHAT WENT RIGHT?

USC’s pair of victories in the NCAA Tournament were its first since 2009, as it positioned itself within striking distance of only the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.

After winning only three of 21 Pac-12 road games over Enfield’s first three seasons, the Trojans won four this season and were a late-game collapse at Arizona State away from finishing above .500 on the road in conference play for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

USC struggled against the premier teams in the Pac-12. It went 1-8 against the five teams at the top of the standings. Its six losses to Sweet 16-bound Arizona, Oregon and UCLA were at times ugly, losing by an average margin of 15 points and by 32 to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in late February.

The Trojans finished in the middle of the pack of the conference standings (sixth place) after going undefeated during nonconference play and have gone since 1985 without winning a regular-season conference championship.

WHO’S GONE?

It was a young team. Statistician Ken Pomeroy ranked USC 326th out of the 351 Division I teams in total experience this season, so it is assured to lose only one scholarship player, Charles Buggs, a senior forward who appeared in 24 games and battled knee injuries. Of the 11 scholarship players on the roster this season, only three were upperclassmen.

WHO MIGHT BE GONE?

Last offseason, USC was a young team too, promising to return a bulk of its players before a series of unexpected departures. It lost six players, with juniors Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic bypassing their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft, and four transferring. Could it face another exodus? Bennie Boatwright and Metu, the talented sophomore forwards, will decide whether to enter the draft. Neither revealed much about their future plans after USC’s season-ending loss to Baylor. Both are thought of as future NBA players, though it is unknown if they would be taken in this year’s draft.

Enfield said he would not offer formal recommendations, but pointed to Baylor forward Johnathan Motley as an example for becoming “NBA ready” after a junior season. Motley, who opted against leaving for the NBA after his sophomore season, is now projected as first-round pick by Draft Express. “At the end of the day, they’re individual decisions,” Enfield said.

On its coaching staff, assistants Tony Bland and Jason Hart might also be sought after by other programs. Bland and Hart joined Enfield’s first staff after he was hired in 2013 and are held in high regard after playing prominent roles in the recruitment of most of USC’s players.

WHO’S BACK?

McLaughlin and Stewart, junior guards who have played leading roles in the program’s resurgence, are expected to return, providing an experienced backcourt. McLaughlin, following Jacobs’ departure, shouldered more ball-handling responsibilities this season while also becoming a more efficient scorer. Stewart is a dangerous scorer, albeit a particularly streaky one.

Three of USC’s freshmen return, including top defender De’Anthony Melton, who was also one of the team’s most versatile players, and forward Nick Rakocevic, who would be counted up to become the primary scoring presence in the frontcourt should Boatwright and Metu depart.

Rakocevic said he is eying a leap similar to the one Metu made from his freshman to his sophomore seasons, resulting in earning the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player honor. “I want to do everything he’s doing,” Rakocevic said.

Guard Shaqquan Aaron should return and bolster backcourt depth, but lost minutes to Mathews toward the end of the season.

WHO’S ON THE WAY?

The Trojans relied on a two-point guard system when Jacobs and McLaughlin paired together for two seasons. That could again be the case with the eligibility of point guard Derryck Thornton, who started 20 games as a freshman at Duke, before transferring. He sat out this season under NCAA rules.

“It’s even better for us,” McLaughlin said. “We add experience and a good guard in Derryk.”

Charles O’Bannon, Jr., the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon and nephew of Ed O’Bannon, is the program’s most prominent incoming freshman recruit. He committed in December and is expected to sign this spring. O’Bannon was a prolific scorer in high school and was a McDonald’s All-American.

Contact the writer: jkaufman@scng.com

Source : http://www.ocregister.com/articles/season-747079-usc-first.html

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