Opening night of the 2016-17 college basketball season is fast approaching. USC opens its season at the Galen Center with a women’s/men’s doubleheader on Friday.
The Women of Troy open the season against Hawai'i with tip-off at 5 p.m. while the men take on Montana beginning at 8 p.m.
In the final week, there is excitement and angst.
Men’s head coach Andy Enfield said the team is looking forward to getting on the court for the first game, but assistant coach Tony Bland admitted their are some concerns as the coaching staff works to make the final necessary preparations with just a handful of preseason practices remaining.
“As a coach, you're always a little nervous and anxious,” Bland said. “I don't care who we play. We could play my son's ninth grade team and we still figure out what you have to go over and if you're missing something.”
Both USC teams are breaking in a number of new players, so the preseason was very important. To help assess where they stand heading into the season, each squad got an opportunity to face off with some outside competition. Cynthia Cooper-Dyke beat former teammate and fellow USC women’s basketball legend Cheryl Miller when the Women of Troy beat Division II Cal State Los Angeles, 85-39, in an exhibition. Enfield’s squad played well in a pair of closed scrimmages against UC Davis and Long Beach State.
Both sets of Trojans will be relying heavily on their returnees, especially early in the season.
For the women, senior guards Jordan Adams and Courtney Jaco and junior post player Kristen Simon will be key if the Women of Troy want to try to replicate their 12-0 run through the non-conference schedule last season. Adams returns after she and then-senior Briana Barrett were ruled academically ineligible for the final 16 games last year sending the season into a tailspin with USC finishing 5-11 after a 14-2 start that earned them a spot in the top 25.
Harvard graduate transfer Temi Fagbenle is gone after leading the team in scoring (13.6) and rebounding (8.7), but Cooper-Dyke was able to bring in another graduate transfer post player in 6-foot-6 center Ivana Jakubcova, who comes to USC from Slovakia by way of the University of Kentucky. The Women of Troy also have a trio of young 6-foot-3 forwards in sophomore Marguerite Effa and freshmen Ja’Tavia Tapley and Asiah Jones.
Kentucky graduate transfer Ivana Jakubcova will look to have an impact in the post for the Women of Troy. (Shotgun Spratling)
Six-foot guard Valerie Higgins, who played for Team USA’s U-18 team this summer, has a chance to make an immediate impact, especially with junior guard Sadie Edwards currently in a walking boot. Edwards, a former UConn transfer, is one of four returners to average in double figures.
On the men’s side, the coaching staff is putting their trust in their “core four” returnees —Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu — after six players with eligibility remaining departed the program searching for better opportunities. From the outside, it might appear as McLaughlin goes, so will the Trojans, but Enfield insists the roster is more well rounded than that.
“We have other good players, so we're not going to throw all the responsibility on Jordan,” Enfield said. “Jordan is a junior. He's a point guard. He's one of our leaders and he's been a huge part of our program the last couple of years. We anticipate Jordan having a big year for us, but he understands as the point guard, he's going to have to get everyone involved.”
Instead, it will be about the collective of returners, along with the additions of transfers Shaqquan Aaron, who practiced with USC last season but sat out due to NCAA rules, and Charles Buggs, who has one season to make an impact as a graduate transfer.
“Mentally, it'll be a different dynamic this year because we have a lot of different players and the upperclassmen are now going to be relied upon to be leaders and to produce on a nightly basis. Last year, we were a little more experienced at certain positions, but this year I think we're equally as talented, just a little less experienced.
“That's what college basketball is all about. You have to bring new players in and get them acclimated to have them improve their skills, their decision-making and have confidence that they can compete at this level. It's exciting to watch our young players develop quickly and will be throughout the first couple months of the season.”
USC adds four freshmen to the mix, including a pair of top 75 prospects in guards De'Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews. Enfield wants them to ready on opening night because they are going to have immediate roles.
Freshman Jonah Mathews should get immediate opportunities on the wing. (Shotgun Spratling)
“They have to be ready to play. All of them will get their chance,” Enfield said. “Our four freshmen have come a long way since the summer and they're ready to help us compete.”
The Trojans lost experience, but added talented players to fill the void and the team has come together nicely.
“We have excellent team chemistry,” Enfield said. “Our two team captains are Jordan McLaughlin and Bennie Boatwright, but everyone on our team is part of the excellent team chemistry because they are all hard workers. They want to learn. They're easy to coach and I think they've bought into a team mentality.
“Now they have to go compete as a team. It's one thing to do it in the preseason when you're together when you're having intra-squad scrimmages every day or practices, but now they have to go compete against other programs and we'll see how they do.”
Throughout the fall, Enfield has mixed and matched lineups to see how players work with one another and he said the starting lineup has yet to be solidified. The “core four” and Aaron would seem like a strong possibility as the five returners.
“If we start the five guys that were here last year, that's a pretty easy decision on my part. However, the four freshmen have had terrific preseasons,” Enfield said. “The bottom line, it doesn't matter who starts. It takes a team to win games at our level, especially when we get to conference. We're going to need to develop all of our players in these out-of-conference games because they have to be ready to help us win now, but also down the road when we start the conference.”
Enfield is excited for the season to start and the Trojans are ready to show their skills.
“I feel like we're ready,” Boatwright said. “We've been working hard every day. We've still got a lot to improve on of course, but we'll be ready to go.”
Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic both went undrafted after leaving for the NBA after their junior years. Both got limited opportunities in the NBA summer league after signing on as free agents, but found their way onto preseason training camp rosters — Jacobs with the Los Angeles Lakers and Jovanovic with the Detroit Pistons.
Those contracts were short lived when roster cuts came and buzzsawed both former Trojans.
But the good news is that both players were added to the team’s NBA Developmental League’s rosters per the “affiliate player rule,” which allows a team to send up to four players they waive from their training camp rosters to their D-League affiliate.
Per the D-League’s website: “Affiliate players remain free agents available for any of the 30 NBA teams to sign. Still, the designation is a vote of confidence for prospects. It’s an indication of which players NBA teams are interested in developing, allowing front offices to closely monitor certain players on and off the court.”
Jacobs and Jovanovic join three other former Trojans in the D-League this year. Former shooting guard J.T. Terrell was selected in the 2016 NBA D-League Draft. He was picked by the Raptors 905 (Toronto’s affiliate) in the fourth round. Terrell transferred to USC from a junior college after beginning his career at Wake Forest.
Another Trojan that came from ACC country, Pe'Shon Howard, who was a graduate transfer from Maryland, is on the Reno Bighorns (Sacramento Kings affiliate) roster while former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Simmons is playing for the Fort Worth Mad Ants (Pacers affiliate).
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