Young guns talking a good game

An entirely different-looking USC basketball team will answer the bell this year for Andy Enfield. They can play -- and talk -- a good game.

After last season's second-half collapse of a veteran, plodding, transfer-heavy Trojans team, we're going to wait and see about this much different looking USC basketball team.

Let the youngest team in the Pac-12 get to playing and get better against a schedule that will let them do just that and then we'll talk.

But in talking with them, this team with 11 of the 14-man roster freshmen or sophomores, you find out they can be a great deal of fun. Spend some time with second-year star-in-the-making Nikola Jovanovic and transfer Katin Reinhardt, and there's no doubt of it.

Reinhardt is your classic gym rat although the Mater Dei alum by way of UNLV is not your typical one, growing up on the border of Dana Point and San Clemente in South Orange County. That's not exactly basketball country.

It's a long way away from the basketball country where this columnist grew up in Kentucky, or worked in Indiana, or went to school in Ohio, or came through in the high school basketball hotbeds of Philly, New York/New Jersey and Chicago. South Orange County is skateboards and surfing country.

But Reinhardt, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, gives the Trojans the kind of perimeter threat the USC teams with a couple of 7-foot starters the past two years had little of. And he can tell you when he became a basketball player for good. It was the year of his six-inch growth spurt.

"My feet couldn't fit on my skateboard," he says. And since South Orange County didn't need any more surfers, basketball it was. And now he's back after a year of practicing and watching and losing weight -- down to a trim 200 from 213.

"His game is evolving," Coach Andy Enfield says of Katin. "He's a half-step quicker."

And he has the benefit of watching what happened when USC imploded the second half of an 11-21 season after a 9-5 nonconference start followed by a 2-16 Pac-12 mark.

"That was a hard year," Reinhardt says. Hard for a transfer who could have fired it up from the outside for a team that had no one who could do that. "It was hard for our seniors, too," he says.

Not a problem in 2014-2015. There are no seniors. But there is a 6-foot-11, 232-pound Jovanovic, fresh off his summer of eating, lifting weights and growing into his power forward skills in a post man's body. "I'm a 4 playing a 5," he says. But now in the body of a 5.

"He's not a true 5," Enfield says. "He's a hybrid. He can do so many things. That's why it was so important to improve his skill set. He has to touch the ball a lot. We'll be so much better off when he does."

Nikola showed that this summer by leading the Pac-12 summer tour of China in scoring (11.0 ppg) and missing by a single rebound in leading them there as well.

The USC plan for Jovanovic, who started 24 games for USC a year ago averaging 8.0 points 4.4 rebounds, is for Nikola to be too quick, skilled and athletic for the bigger defenders to stay with. And too big and strong for the quicker, smaller defenders. Pick your poison, USC says.

"Last year, when he got speeded up," Enfield says, he just wasn't ready to handle it all the time. This year, it's Jovanovic, who has grown nearly 3/4 of an inch in the offseason in addition to putting on some 20 pounds of muscle, who will be doing the speeding and powering up.

With 24 starts in his college career, Nikola points out one of the strengths of this team -- its experience. The Trojans have 105 combined college starters -- 53 at USC and 52 from the transfers with Reinhardt having 34 at UNLV and Darion Clark 18 at Charlotte.

"They won't have upperclassmen to bail them out," Enfield says. "but that's what's so exciting about coaching this team for our staff with their youth and energy."

"The thing I like about this team," Reinhardt says, "is how everybody gets along, there are no egos."

But there is a top 12 recruiting class. And a bunch of freshmen who would like to introduce themselves to USC fans, something that will happen today at 1 p.m. in the first USC exhibition game in four years, which comes against former USC assistant Dieter Horton's Cal State-LA team at Galen Center.

Jovanovic sums it up for this season: "We're a different team . . . we're way more talented . . . nothing against those guys last year but they were slower, this team can really run . . . we've done a lot more running . . . I'm confident in leading this team."

But you're just a sophomore, it's noted to Nikola. Can a sophomore be a leader?

"I don't have any options," he says looking around at all the young guys. He's it. Now it's time to go out and do it. Talking will only take you so far.

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