You might not know it, but in a quiet little immaculate facility known as the Galen Center, the USC basketball season gets underway today. The women take the court first at noon against Hope International before turning the gym over to the men’s team for their season opener against San Diego at 5 p.m.
Two teams attacking the season in two different ways.
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke has a ton of new faces with a heavy international flare while Andy Enfield has all the familiar faces back from last year’s young 12-20 team with a couple of literally huge local upgrades. The Trojans added freshmen Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. Both Los Angeles high school products stand at least 6-foot-10.
Add in Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron, who isn’t eligible to play this season, but comes in as a lengthy 6-foot-7 wing. Even 6-foot-1 walk-on transfer Kurt Karis brings experience from playing two seasons for Chicago State.
The Trojans lost four players, but they were four of the five least used players last year. The four players that left the program (Chass Bryan, Khalil Dukes, Devon Pflueger, Brendyn Taylor) give up a combined 21 inches to this year’s newcomers. The coaching staff replaced four lightly-used players with two experienced transfers and two freshmen expected to contribute immediately.
The two freshmen also address two big areas of need. Boatwright could be one of the premier perimeter shooters in the nation by the time he leaves USC and Metu might want to start working on a Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag. He should once again give the Trojans a true presence at the rim.
“They'll play a lot,” Enfield said. “They're talented. They are great, hard workers and they love the game of basketball. They are both impressive young men and they'll play a lot for us.”
Don’t tell anyone, but there’s actually some excitement and expectation in the men’s program this season. There will be legit Pac-12 talent on the court. Now it just has to be coached up.
Jordan McLaughlin is back and ready to go after shoulder surgery. Katin Reinhardt spent the summer playing in the Drew League working on being more consistent with his shooting form. Malik Marquetti has taken over in the locker room as the quiet captain of the team. Julian Jacobs’ decision-making has improved and everyone believes Elijah Stewart has star written all over him.
Enfield has said the entire roster has improved over the offseason, beginning with everyone adding between 5-12 pounds of muscle from working with strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz. He won’t say it, but even Shultz, who worked with Maryland’s 2001-02 national championship team, senses that this USC team might finally be ready to turn the corner.
But the coaching staff knows what happens in the offseason doesn’t count toward the standings. It’s what happens on the court beginning Friday night.
“They’ve all improved,” Enfield said. “But we need players to be game shooters, meaning when the lights turn on, some of our players need to step up and be consistent — consistent shooters, consistent playmakers and they need to play to their strengths. That’s what we’ve been working on is playing to our strengths.
“We need our better shooters to take open, uncontested shots off the pass where they are in rhythm. We want rhythm threes when we’re on offense and of course, we want our post touches as well. It’s a point of emphasis for us offensively is to improve our efficiency. We feel like with a year under their belt and some talented freshmen, we can do that.”
With a 10-day trip to Italy and a pair of closed door scrimmages against UNLV and Pepperdine, Enfield has been able to see his team playing against some different competition, and he doesn’t expect the sluggish start the Trojans had last year when they lost three of their first five games, including their season opener to Portland State and a 20-point blowout to Akron.
“We expect to play well. It's our home opener. Our guys are excited to start the season,” Enfield said. “They just have to relax and play basketball. All of the players have improved. We've improved dramatically as a team. Now this is the fun part of college basketball, the actual games.”
USC will face a San Diego team that is going through what the Trojans did two years ago — new coaching staff and a ton of new faces. Former New Mexico assistant Lamont Smith takes over a program that went 15-16 last season. The Toreros lost five veterans from that team and Smith has brought in five freshman, making San Diego difficult to specifically prepare for in a season opener.
“San Diego is a hard scout because they have a lot of new guys on the team and also a new coaching staff,” Enfield said. “We just have to play our principles on defense and try to execute on offense, not necessarily be as in-depth scouting as we would if we had five or six game films on them.”
The USC players are ready to get on the court and try to prove that this season will be different after four straight losing seasons.
“We're forgetting about that. This is a new year. We're ready to go,” Reinhardt said. “We're ready to finally start playing somebody else besides our own team. We're tired of beating up on each other.”
We'll see if they can beat up on someone else at 5 p.m.