Head Coach: Andy Enfield
Overall Record: 21-13
Conference Record: 9-9 (tied for 5th in the Pac-12)
2015-16 Pomeroy Rating: #49 (5th in the Pac-12)
2015-16 Sagarin Rating: #50 (5th in the Pac-12)
Overall Off. Adj. Efficiency: #34
Overall Def. Adj. Efficiency: #82
Overall Scoring Average: 80.5 ppg (2nd)
Overall Scoring Defense: 74.6 ppg (9th)
Conference Scoring Average: 78.9 ppg (3rd)
Conference Scoring Defense: 79.3 ppg (10th)
So here we are. USC basketball 2016-17. Heading into last season, the albatross hanging over the program was almost comically strong. Three last place finishes in four years. Years of recruiting neglect under KO. Questions about whether SC could ever be competitive. Then, for a moment at least last season, SC looked like a legitimate Top 20 team. After beating UCLA on January 13, USC was 15-3 overall tied for the lead in the Pac-12, ranked as high as #22 in Pomeroy.
Then the slow slide began. After going 3-2 over the next 5 games, SC would then lose 8 of its final 11 games to finish the season, including a first round loss in the NCAA Tournament on a botched defensive coverage out of an inbound. Following the season, SC saw its entire reserve corps transfer and its three projected senior leaders — Julian Jacobs, Nikola Jovanovic and Katin Reinhardt — all leave the program. As a result, here is how USC looks in terms of returning personnel:
The media reaction to all the departures was, to say the least, negative. Many of the same people who were celebrating Enfield’s ability to turn around a program with all underclassmen were now arguing that SC had to start all over.
But does it? Is what Enfield has on his hands really a rebuilding project? Many close followers of the program have noted that, despite the losses, Enfield is returning 4 of his top 5 most talented players, and is adding newcomers in Aaron, Melton and Buggs, who may be a level above most of the guys who left. Two things are for sure: one, there are question marks; two, there is a lot of talent here.
The Back Court:
Enfield and his staff (in particular, Tony Bland and Jason Hart) sold Jordan McLaughlin on being a transformative player for USC. So far, he has looked the part, and he still has two years of eligibility remaining. The diminutive McLaughlin is one of the smoothest, most skilled players in all of college basketball — a 5-tool player (shoots, ball handles, passes, defends, and can grab the occasional rebound) with very few weaknesses; he is not, however, a particularly athletic point guard. He breaks down opponents using skill more than freakish athleticism.
McLaughlin’s back court classmate Elijah Stewart had an unexpected season. Heading into last year, many program insiders were actually picking Elijah, not Julian Jacobs, as the player most likely to leave early for the NBA. Elijah was coming off of a 13-points-per-game run over the final 8 games of 2015 to close out the season; and Elijah initially picked up right where he had left off, scoring 17+ points per game over the first 3 games last season. Then Stewart hit a 9-game rut, where he scored double figures only once. After picking up the pace again, Stewart averaged only 7 points per game over the final 11 games. Stewart’s blocks and steals also fell in his sophomore season. The one huge high note is that Stewart turned himself into a deadly long range shooting, hitting over 46% from 3-point range in conference. With Reinhardt gone, and the shooting guard minutes left to him, Stewart needs to put the best aspects of his game all together. If he can do that, Stewart can have a huge year.
With Jacobs and Reinhardt both gone, there are plenty of minutes open and opportunities to fill. For all his talents, McLaughlin is not the aggressive, slashing type penetrator that Jacobs was a point guard. That is a role that someone needs to fill. And, by someone, that will either need to be Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron or true freshman De’Anthony Melton. Both Aaron and Melton had huge prep careers. Aaron was the 2013-14 Washington State Player of the Year. Melton was one of three finalists (along with UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf) for the California Play of the Year award. Both lead their teams to State Titles. Aaron’s game is closer to Jacobs — a long slashing player that loves the ball in his hands. Melton is more of a do-it-all combo guard that excels in all the little things that helps teams win.
Complimenting Aaron and Melton will be Jonah Mathews, the brother of former Cal shooting guard Jordan Mathews. Jonah is a deadly shooter who put up huge scoring numbers in high school. Most observers agree that he is ahead of where his brother was at the same age.
The Front Court:
With the early losses of Nikola Jovanovic, Darion Clark and Malik Martin, SC’s front line lost over 4,000 minutes played of Division I college basketball. And yet, program insiders will tell you that those losses might not be as bad as they seem. Jovanovic, Clark and Martin never really fit the style of basketball Enfield was looking to play. Moreover, because of coordination, athleticism and skill issues, all three struggled to defend and rebound at the Pac-12 level. In conference games, SC was 9th in the Pac-12 in 2point-FG% defense (49.5%) and 11th in defensive rebounding percentage (67.6%). Moreover, the three of them combined for only 45 blocks last season.
But the big reason that program insiders aren’t so worried is because SC returns its two most talented front court players in years in Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. So much has been said about this duo, but the only thing that really matters for SC is how much these two can develop before they head off to the NBA. For instance, the long-bomber Boatwright scored in double figures in 13 of the USC’s final 20 games, averaging over 15 points per game when he did; but when Boatwright failed to score in double digits, he averaged less than 5 points per game, shooting only 15% from the field in those games. And, while Metu scored 43 points and grabbed 25 rebounds in the 3 games against UCLA, he failed to reach double figures in scoring or rebounding in any other game once conference play began. In other words, both are works in progress
The depth in the front court is the trickiest part of SC’s personnel, and could be a serious issue in the case of injury or players just not panning out. Athletic monster Charles Buggs, who started for Minnesota most of the last year and half, transferred in for his senior season after graduating early. Buggs is a guy with crazy athleticism and a really nice shooting stroke, who just hasn’t yet put it all together. True freshman Nick Rakocevic played for the legendary St. Joseph program (of Hoop Dreams fame) in Illinois, leading his high school to a State Title as a junior and being selected All-State as a senior. Rakocevic’s recruitment was a bit of a wild ride after a fairly disastrous AAU season following his junior year. Harrison Henderson is the son of one-time Duke national champion Phil Henderson.
USC will probably start a lineup of virtually all former Top 60 high school recruits, in McLaughlin, Stewart, Aaron, Boatwright and Metu. Add that to the fact that any team with three proven 3-point sharp shooters cannot be counted out of any college game, and the overall athleticism on the team, and SC has the potential to be a very, very strong team.
But there are concerns. Will SC find a legitimate ball handler to relieve McLaughlin? Will SC be able to get players open without Jacobs? And, most importantly, will SC finally improve in defending the rim and defensive rebounding? If SC can answer those questions convincingly, it could be a really big year. If SC can’t, it could be a big disappointment.
G Jordan McLaughlin
G Elijah Stewart
W Shaqquan Aaron
F Bennie Boatwright
F Chimezie Metu
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