The USC basketball team is off to a 2-0 start for the first time in Andy Enfield’s brief tenure with the program.
The Trojans have managed that in two different ways, holding San Diego to just 45 points in the opener before having to win a shootout against Monmouth and in the process doing something for the first time in 13 years — cracking triple digits with the 101-90 win.
Last year, USC wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Monmouth. it would have had a lengthy four-, five- or even eight-minute lull where they scored only a handful of points and that would have been the time Monmouth would have pulled away. But Enfield's squad didn't yield. It didn't fade down the stretch or need a milk carton photo for a disappearance of their offense. The Trojans continued to fight and battled their way to the win over a relentless mid-major team that was coming off an overtime win at UCLA.
Now on Saturday night at the Galen Center, Enfield will try to do something neither of his predecessors, Tim Floyd or Kevin O’Neill, was able to accomplish and hasn’t been done since 2001 — start the season with three victories. Henry Bibby’s squad began the season 8-0 en route to a 24-10 campaign that ended with a loss to Duke in the Elite 8.
While this year’s USC squad is probably at least a year away from even considering trips to the Elite 8, the Trojans have been playing much improved ball from last year. The results aren’t a fluke. The players have bought in to the team concept and have taken each of their individual games to another level. The Trojans are sharing the ball like the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks teams that have come up in their film study on more than one occasion.
"We’ve had more assists than turnovers. Our guys are making shots because we’re putting ourselves in position to make open shots and passing the ball at the right time for the most part,” Enfield said. “I’m proud of our effort. The team is playing very hard. The players are playing extremely hard and they have good chemistry right now, so I’m very pleased.”
Not to take anything away from a solid mid-major team in Monmouth, but USC will get its first big challenge Saturday against a 3-0 New Mexico squad that enters with a trio of new faces averaging more than 15 points each.
“Their three leading scorers didn’t play against us last year. It’s a different team,” Enfield said. “They are very good. They are very explosive offensively. They are just a good basketball team.
“It’ll be a different game than last year. This year there’s a lot of new players on the court.”
Elijah Brown, Cullen Neal and Tim Williams didn’t play when USC beat the Lobos at The Pit last season as Brown and Williams were ineligible after transferring and Neal was lost for the season after an injury in the third game of the year. Brown, the son of former Cavaliers and Lakers head coach Mike Brown, can score in bunches. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard averaged 6.8 points per game for Butler as a freshman out of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, but left after that season.
Williams transferred to New Mexico after being first team All-Southern Conference, leading Samford in points, rebounds, blocks and steals per game. And Neal is a sharpshooter from deep that was averaging 24.5 points per game before he hurt his ankle last season.
Similar to the lose of Neal early last season, the Lobos have already lost a key player this season in a scary situation. Forward Devon Williams went down with a back injury and had to be immobilized and taken off the court on a stretcher. What was initially thought to be a neck injury proved to be a cervical spinal cord contusion, according to the Albuquerque Journal, and additional testing revealed that he has spinal stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal cord, which will unfortunately likely spell the end of his basketball career.
Even without one of their key reserves, New Mexico should present the toughest challenge yet. For the Trojans the initial opponent this week is complacency after their 2-0 start, but Enfield doesn’t foresee that being an issue.
"They’ve got to come out and compete every night. I’m confident they will. They understand they’re only in college for a certain amount of time. If you’re in college basketball in the Pac-12 at this level, you need to compete every night.”
Starting combo guard Julian Jacobs said the coaches are quick to remind the players of the recent memories this year’s team is trying to erase, if they feel the Trojans aren’t giving their all or are overlooking an opportunity to get better every day.
“There’s a constant reminder of how we’ve done in the past,” Jacobs said. “We’ve sort of been the laughing stock of the Pac-12 the last couple of years and the coaches are very quick to let us know when they feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s definitely been a blast [so far this season.] These guys are fun to play with, come to practice with. The intensity, the competitiveness is always there and the coaches do a good job of keeping us high energy.”
Breakout sophomore guard Elijah Stewart echoed Jacobs’ sentiments both with his smile and his words.
“It’s been really fun. The team morale is a lot better and we’re just coming together right now,” Stewart said.
And to keep the momentum going forward?
“Just keep practicing hard. Knowing that even if you do lose, you gave your all. Don’t leave nothing left on the table.”
- Andy Enfield said sophomore guard Malik Marquetti and sophomore forward Malik Martin “both should play on Saturday” after they were held out of Monday’s game against Monmouth for what Enfield termed was a “coach’s decision” in his post-game news conference.
- USC has 17 blocks in the first two games after averaging 4.1 per game last season.
- Five Trojans are scoring in double figures after the first two games, led by Jordan McLaughlin’s 21 points per game.
- USC is shooting 31.7 percent from three-point range with its top two shooters, Katin Reinhardt and Bennie Boatwright, a combined 3-for-14 while Serbian forwards Nikola Jovanovic and Strahinja Gavrilovic, who aren’t known for their long-range shooting, are 2-for-2.
- Julian Jacobs’ 19 points on Monday were a career high.
- The Trojans have outscored their opponents 84-46 in the paint through two games.