It's not over for USC hoops just yet

Trojans turn the corner, for a night, with an aggressive, tough-minded, controlled effort in a 71-57 win over Cal. Is it a season-saver? Could be . . . if it continues.

This wasn't where we wanted to be. At Galen Center. At a USC basketball game. In Year 2 of the Andy Enfield Era.

Not after the last-place Trojans had opened Pac-12 play with two road losses to Utah and Colorado by a total of 55 points and had gone from sinking to just plain sunk in Week 1 of league play.

It was over. Not just the season but maybe the Enfield Experiment. Could a coach ride a two-game NCAA low-seed run into a successful step-up to the big leagues? Very few have. And this one wasn't looking good after last year's team, not nearly as untalented as its record, stopped competing in a 2-17 Pac-12 swoon.

And no Jordan McLaughlin, the hot-shot freshman recruit, who was out with a separated shoulder, the opposite one from the surgically repaired torn labrum in the offseason.

And then there was the home opener opponent, an 11-4 Cal team, and a winner over two ranked teams -- Syracuse and Washington. Not a good place for a staggered Trojan team to have to start at home. But the schedule is the schedule.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to canceling the season for lack of competitiveness. This Trojans team wasn't playing like the team that had lost to Portland State and Army at home and to Akron by 20 in the Charleston Classic.

These guys weren't playing like the team that was dead-last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, three-point shooting percentage, free throw percentage, assist-turnover ratio, defensive rebounding percentage and three-point field goals made. And 11th in scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding margin, assists and rebounding defense.

Not a pretty picture and probably one that was going to get worse based on last year's Pac-12 play when teams knew exactly what to take away from the Trojans and forced them to do things they didn't want to do -- or couldn't.

But somehow this was different. These guys were under control, purposeful they knew where the ball was, where their man was and where they were. They looked tough-minded, confident even, they were getting to the basket on offense, but they were taking their time, playing patient, they weren't letting themselves get speeded up.

And with Julian Jacobs at the point playing like a smart and veteran playmaker, they were up 17-6 after 7 1/2 minutes. Just playing basketball. Not trying to do too much. Staying alert to the ball. Lots of interior cutting and passing through the lane. Where has that been all year?

They played smart on defense, played team defense, aware of where they were and where one another was. They got Cal in foul trouble. They were making their free throws. And leading 23-8 after 10 minutes.

They didn't panic with the ball in their hands and a defender or defenders pinning them in a place where they didn't want to be. They were able to run their half-court offense and acted as if they knew they could. And sure, they still can't hit from three-point range, but they did everything else.

They were under control, even when Cal crept back. When they needed to make a play, a shot, someone stepped up and made it. Sure, Katin Reinhardt may have made one of those boneheaded out-of-control charges on what should have been an easy two-on-one fast break conversion for a four-point swing in the second half. But he also came back immediately for a composed corner three out of the offense to put a nail in a Cal comeback.

And they were doing this with just 54 fans in the six student sections the first half and just a few more at game's end with the second semester not here yet. But the alums in the crowd of 3,355 were surely enjoying it. And surprised at how USC got to a 65-46 edge with 4:44 to go before frittering it away a bit, to 67-57 with 1:30 left, and then finishing off the 71-57 win.

Very few silly fouls. Same old Pac-12 officials but that was not an issue. They just played through it -- the way good teams do.

And make no mistake about it: This was a good team USC put on the floor Wednesday. They hit 85 percent (17 of 20) of their free throws. They outrebounded a big Cal team 40-37. They had 14 assists to just eight turnovers. And won going away despite just two-of-15 three-point shooting.

Was this a must-win for Enfield and his program? It was. This team had to start growing up. Had to start getting better. Had to figure out who they were.

"But it's about us," Enfield said after noting how good Utah and Colorado were for openers. His Trojans "had to figure out what Pac-12 basketball is all about," Andy said. After a year and a half, they'd better. They have no choice.

As to the on-court postgame interview quote from Jacobs that "USC was getting no respect," Enfield responded that "you get respect by winning games."

His analysis of how that happened: "We played harder, we played better, we played more composed."

But this wasn't as much about the end result, as important as that was, but about how they got it done -- even if they couldn't quite explain just why that happened now.

"Our big guys are getting better," Enfield said of 6-foot-10 freshman Malik Martin (eight points, four-of-six shooting, five rebounds) and 6-11 sophomore Nikola Jovanovic (20 points, nine rebounds, nine of 14 shooting).

Neither are the classic post man but they can create mismatches if they keep moving, pass the ball to one another in the lane and stay active. Which they did. Why now?

Enfield couldn't say, just that "we teach them that . . . we just hope they do it during games."

They did indeed. A good part of that had to do with the poise and play of the 6-4 Jacobs, who toned down his high-flying act and stayed mostly on the ground, scoring 17 points on six-of-11 shooting but more importantly had a game-high five assists.

"I'll just say I was ultra-aggressive and it worked out," Jacobs said. And how did that happen? "Just a maturation process," he said.

"We played under control and stayed aggressive," Jacobs said. "Teams don't respect us because we don't always play hard. We can't afford that."

They can't. USC basketball can't afford it. Andy Enfield's career can't afford it. People who care about anything other than football at USC can't.

"Maturation," Jacobs called it.

"Progress," was Nikola's word for what happened here and what must happen going forward.

"Basically we have to take this game and use it to get ready for Stanford (10-3 and 2-0 in the Pac-12) coming in Sunday (7 p.m., ESPNU) . . . hopefully we can progress."

But the key isn't hope here, it's knowing you can make it happen if you play the way USC played Wednesday. It's knowing you have to make it happen and you have to play that way. It's not an option.

But now it's a possibility. Something we didn't see coming before Wednesday.

Footnoted



McLaughlin's separated right shoulder is getting daily therapy from the trainers who got him in shape the six months before the season after surgery on a torn left labrum . . . He's day-to-day, Enfield said of USC's leading scorer (12.7 ppg and assist man (64 in 13 games), but no certainty to play Sunday.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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