Guard — Jordan McLaughlin (Neon Tommy)

USC Basketball Season Preview

The Trojans’ youthful squad looks for success on the court

It’s that magical time of year again, as we embark on another four months of college hoops at the University of Southern California. The Trojans haven’t made the NCAA tournament—or had a winning record for that matter—since the 2010-11 season. Since then, Coach Andy Enfield has been brought in to try and turn the program around.

Enfield gained popularity amongst his collegiate counterparts after he took Florida Gulf Coast on an improbable NCAA Tournament run, playing a high-flying, fast-paced brand of basketball, a brand of basketball that caught the eye of USC Athletic Director Pat Haden.

Many wanted the Trojans to bring in a more well-known name—something the football team probably felt the same way about—but given how poor the team had done the past few seasons, at that point, anyone would’ve be an improvement.

A 21–43 record through two seasons says all you need to know about the state of the program that Enfield inherited. That being said, he’s now had the chance to bring in two recruiting classes of his own guys, and the team, for the first time in a long time, has quality depth.

There’s a buzz of optimism and swagger around Galen Center practices these days, and it may have more merit than most people think. This is a season where you’re going to want to be in attendance. Let’s dive in.

Last Season

In Andy Enfield’s second season, the Trojans won one more game than in his first go, and advanced to the Pac-12 tournament quarter-finals. It may not seem like much, but ending the season on such a high note—following a dramatic comeback win against Arizona State—was imperative for such a young Trojan squad.

Forward — Nikola Jovanovic (Neon Tommy)

Youth. That’s exactly what Andy Enfield had last year, as he gave meaningful minutes to four freshmen: Point guard Jordan McLaughlin (35th in the country according to Scout), wings Elijah Stewart (39th in the country according to Scout) and Malik Marquetti (61st in the country according to Scout) as well as big man Malik Martin.

Enfield allowed these players to be thrown into the fire constructively, giving them a chance to make mistakes, while growing as both individuals and as a group.

McLaughlin, the top recruit of the class, was handed the keys to Enfield’s pick-up truck of an offense, and he remained the player that had fans murmuring to each other with flares of explosiveness and potential. But, of course, most freshman can’t handle that much responsibility all at once; a fact that led to poor decision making. Still, despite missing 10 games due to injury, it was a relatively successful season for the young point guard.

It wasn’t just McLaughlin who had a lot to handle, as the other three freshmen also endured adversity and an up-and-down campaign. Stewart and Marquetti really grew up by season’s end, however, showing respectable two-way potential.

Despite winning just three games in Pac-12 play, the Trojans were right in a lot of their contests and lost a few tough heartbreakers along the way. Expect a few of those to bounce USC’s way this season.

The Trojans finished the regular season with a record of 12–20, but it shouldn’t be seen as a season lost. Enfield got to see what his young talent could do with a lot of responsibility and cleared house of all the knuckleheads from the previous regime. This paves the way for a 2015/16 season of higher expectations and steep demands for improvement.

2015–2016 Season Outlook:

The biggest questions regarding a new season for most teams is who they have to replace and who they’ve brought in to become those replacements. Lucky for USC, they bring back their nine leading scorers from last year and have added two high-quality freshmen. Though the size of their incoming class is half of that from a year ago, these two freshmen should have an immediate impact.

Chimezie Metu, the 30th ranked player by Scout in 2015, was the big get. Still a very raw talent at 6-foot-11, he has freakish athleticism and could provide the rim protection USC has lacked for some time. It’ll be interesting to see how much time he gets early on with such a deep front court already in place.

As for the second 2015 recruit, Bennie Boatwright—the 60th ranked player according to Scout—might be the team’s best shooter, even as a freshman. Boatwright was originally scouted when he was closer to 6-foot-8, but now he’s grown to over 6-foot-10. He’ll be able to give Enfield a lot of lineup flexibility given that he can both shoot the ball efficiently and play multiple positions.

Apart from the additions of Metu and Boatwright, USC also gained Louisville transfer Shaquaan Aaron. Aaron will have to sit out this season, but at 6-foot-7, he resembles a true small forward and should gain immeasurable experience this year, similarly to redshirt junior guard Katin Reinhardt who had to sit out the team’s 2013/14 season, after transferring from UNLV.

This all culminates in Enfield having the most talent, in terms of quality and quantity, that he’s ever had during his tenure. This means that this could be the first year we really get to see how good of a coach resides in Southern California.

Guard — Elijah Stewart (Neon Tommy)

One major factor in Enfield’s favor is that the players have finally bought all the way in. According to USC coaches, all the players have all bought in to improving this year, not just basketball-wise but especially physically.

The team has lifted and/or ran on every off-day since practice began. The guys hang out and eat every meal together, which wasn’t even the case last year. The old regime is completely removed and this group of young players want to be the ones who bring back a strong brand of USC basketball to the Galen Center.

Expectations for this team are still all over the board because, while it’s been evident in practice that almost every guy has gotten significantly better—and given they’ve gained two solid freshmen—this team remains really young. Success will be dependent on how much of an impact the two freshmen can have and how much better last year’s class has gotten. They’ll be a watch-and-see squad, and like most other teams, we’ll know a lot more about this team by the beginning of January when Pac-12 play gets underway.

Meet the Squad

No. 3 — Shaquaan Aaron

The former 27th ranked player in the country, Aaron originally committed to Louisville, but transferred after last season. He’ll sit out this season, but will maintain three years of eligibility at USC.
The scouting report on him is that he’s a freak athlete (watch out for this theme throughout this roster) and therefore, he is expected to be a pest in the open court. Sitting this year out should allow Aaron to become a more consistent three-point shooter and put on some much-needed muscle. He figures to be an important piece for 2016-17.
(via USCTrojans.com)

No. 25 — Bennie Boatwright

One of the two new freshmen coming in, Boatwright should have an immediate impact. After winning the Trojans’ Tip-Off Three-Point Contest, as mentioned above, he may already be the best shooter on the team. Since his high school days, he’s grown to over 6-foot-10, which makes him even more of a weapon for Enfield’s team.
Boatwright is also a very cerebral player and a skilled, willing passer. Given his size, the combination of his shooting abilities is a rare find. No official word from the coaches, but I’d expect Boatwright to start—or at the very least be the team’s 6th man to start the year—especially for a team that may not have enough consistency from behind the arc. One USC coach even likes Bennie for a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year candidate.

No. 0 — Darion Clark

An unsung hero on this squad, Clark is extremely solid and works his tail off. He’ll hit the glass hard and work tirelessly on the defensive end. Despite being only 6-foot-7, he has the longest wing span on the team. That was a major factor into Coach Enfield’s decision to start him for several games last year.
As a junior, Clark will certainly be given a lot of responsibility as a leader, but minutes will be hard to come by in a crowded front court rotation. And at 6-foot-7, without the ability to play the 3, Clark could be starved for minutes depending on how the young guys play and develop. He will likely be relied on early on this season, though.

No. 13 — Samer Dhillon

After only appearing in four games last season, it may be a season of even fewer games for Dhillon. He’s bound to be a glue guy on the bench for the Trojans, but that’s still not an insignificant role.

No. 14 — Strahinja Gavrilovic

Gavrilovic enters the season as USC’s lone senior. At 6-foot-9, the Serbian native is a part of the loaded front court this season. He averaged career highs in nearly every category last year and earned Enfield’s trust, playing almost 14 minutes a night with very solid defense.
Don’t expect him to be an extremely impactful player for the Trojans this year, though. He only averaged those minutes last year due to the shortage of talent, and that was before Boatwright and Metu joined the team. That being said, you never know if guys will have troubles adjusting and predicting injuries is impossible, so it’ll be invaluable to have him able to slot right in at any time.

No. 12 — Julian Jacobs

One of last year’s captains, Jacobs will still have a significant leadership role in his junior season. Jacobs’ most likely role this year will be as either a ball handler next to McLaughlin or as the back-up point guard. Expect the latter.
While he struggles from downtown, Jacobs is a do-it-all guard who will be all over every stat sheet. He averaged 8–4–4 last season and could be the main contributor off the bench. He’s a freak athlete, who ignites the fire of intensity on this team. If Julian Jacobs is your back-up point guard in college, you’re not doing too badly.

No. 32 — Nikola Jovanovic

Jovanovic was supposed to be one of the first two options of the offense last season. While he put up really solid numbers — 12 points and eight boards — he was largely disappointing in a lot of games with needless turnovers and really poor defense.
Jovanovic appears to have improved his jumper, and he could still be a solid option on offense. The 6-foot-11 junior will certainly be a part of the Trojans rotation, but there’s more than enough talent now to keep him honest.

No. 21 — Kurt Karis

Karis transferred this year from Chicago State and, like Aaron, will be ineligible for this season. Listed at 6-foot-1, the junior guard should still have two years of eligibility going forward.
Karis has a really nice jumper, but will have to improve his defense and lateral quickness to break into the Trojans back court rotation a year from now. At Chicago State last year, he started seven games and was fourth on the team in assists.

No. 24 — Malik Marquetti

Named one of two co-captains for this season, Marquetti is one of the four from last year’s class who could make huge strides this season. A very solid defender, Marquetti came on fairly strong at the end of last season.
So far in pre-season, it seems as though he’s tightened up all areas of his game. Marquetti, as described by the coaches, has a very powerful influence over the team. He chooses his words wisely, but when he speaks, everyone listens. The key to a breakout year will be his jump shot, especially from three-point land.

No. 2 — Malik Martin

A decent big man recruit out of Miami, Florida, Martin certainly will be looking to improve in 2015/16. Like most of his fellow freshmen, Martin struggled at times last year, occasionally showing pretty bad handles when in the paint.
It may have been partially to do with the lack of talent and scoring last year, but Martin forced the issue too much at times, taking a lot of shots outside of his bread and butter: in and around the paint. With more talent, scoring and shooting this year, if Martin is more methodical in his shot selection, he’ll be a great piece off the bench to start the year.

No. 11 — Jordan McLaughlin

‘J-Mac’ was the reason to be at Galen Center last season, and now, he has actual talent around him. He was able to cut down his turnovers by year’s end, but unfortunately shot dreadfully from the floor. That was mostly due to not having a lot of scoring around him and trying to do too much, which should change this year.
His shoulders are as good as new and he’s back in the weight room. With new tracking technology the coaching staff has implemented this season, McLaughlin was hitting 50% of his threes in practice at the end of October. An improved, consistent jumper should see the sophomore break out in a big, big way. His decision making and passing will be fascinating to watch this year, now having the aforementioned increased talent around him. The partnering captain of the Trojans will be running this team figuratively and literally, and is likely the one who will be the biggest factor in whether this team can shatter expectations.

No. 4 — Chimezie Metu

Metu is the other exciting freshman expected to have a significant role this season. At 6-foot-11 with crazy athleticism, Metu might be the only legitimate rim protector on the team. Therefore, there’s more of an emphasis on Enfield being able to find minutes for the very young big man.
Metu—or ‘Mezie’—was a standout at Lawndale High School and already has a great shooting touch. For the Trojans’ purposes, they’ll need to emphasize on developing him on the inside. That being said, he has great hands and instincts. Even if it takes several games or weeks, he’s bound to be one of the most impactful players by season’s end, and he just might have the highest ceiling of any player on the team.

No. 5 — Katin Reinhardt

Did you know Reinhardt led the Trojans in scoring last year? At 12.5 points per game, Reinhardt was the benefactor of not having a ton of scoring around him. But that of course led to a lot of bad shots and a poor field-goal percentage; though he did shoot nearly 39 percent from three.
The UNLV transfer clearly benefitted from being around the program for a year, and USC will need his three-point shooting and underrated playmaking this year. When he sticks to a better shot selection, he’s a valuable piece, and he even outscored NBA players Stanley Johnson and Andre Drummond at the Drew League—LA’s summer Pro-Am League—this summer. Expect Reinhardt, if he doesn’t start, to be a dynamic scorer off the bench.

No. 30 — Elijah Stewart

Elijah was the pinnacle late bloomer last season. He came in with a reputation of being a gifted three-point shooter with defensive potential. While he shot a respectable 34 percent from deep, it was his defense that stood out, as he averaged a block and a steal per game.
Now there was a lot of buzz entering camp this year that Stewart had vastly improved in all areas, especially his shooting. Those rumors are 100 percent true, and Stewart should be pegged as the most likely cog to breakout this year. He’s the definition of a freak athlete and should be primed for plenty of high-flying dunks and blocks this year, but don’t sleep on his overall game as well.

(Images from: USCTrojans.com)


Notable Games:

  • November 12 vs San Diego (season opener)
  • November 26 vs Wichita State (preseason No. 10)
  • January 9 vs Arizona (preseason No. 12)
  • January 13 at UCLA (duh)
  • February 4 vs UCLA (duh x2, At Galen)
  • February 21 vs Utah (preseason No. 16)
  • February 28 at Cal (preseason No. 14, top freshman class in the Pac-12)
  • March 5 vs Oregon (season finale)
Head Coach Andy Enfield (@SINow/Twitter)

Predictions

I see the Trojans finishing around 6th in the Pac-12, which is a huge jump, but one that should be merited. UCLA, Arizona, Utah and Cal should be really strong this year, but if everything clicks for this year’s Trojan squad, there’s no reason they can’t be the top team beneath these behemoths. That being said, I don’t see an NCAA berth on the cards. Perhaps in 2017!

In terms of individual predictions, I think Bennie Boatwright and Elijah Stewart will make an All-Pac-12 team, probably 3rd team. McLaughlin should be in the mix as well, if he’s healthy.

It’s going to be a fun season at Galen Center as this young group grows together and flies up and down the court. There’s potential for this season to be a stinker, but also for them to blow expectations out of the water. Come along for the ride.


You can reach Staff Reporter Max Holm here, or follow him @MaxSHHolm

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