USC head coach Andy Enfield knows how important his freshman class is to this season. It's one of the first topics he broached as the season approached. The early departures of six players in the offseason automatically forced the roles of the freshmen to be expanded beyond what might have been originally planned.
The coaching staff is trying to figure out how well certain players mesh with each other, particular roles and skill sets. That puts more onus on Enfield giving his young players time to develop during the non-conference schedule.
"We're very young. We're still trying to find our rotation and see what players can perform and do certain things under pressure," Enfield said after the Trojans beat New Orleans 88-54 Tuesday night. "It's a lot different in the games versus practice, but our coaching staff is very excited about our young team. Our freshmen are giving us production. We feel comfortable we can put anyone in at the end of the game."
De'Anthony Melton is averaging 9.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and is seventh in the nation with 3.25 per game. While he is already playing like a veteran, the other freshmen have had some early growing pains and there's no better time for them to be getting experience than a non-conference blowout where they aren't going to cost you a game if they make a mistake.
Against New Orleans, USC's four freshmen played a combined 70 minutes. Melton was on the court for 22 minutes. Jonah Mathews had 20 minutes and Nick Rakocevic had six points and five rebounds while played 18 minutes. Harrison Henderson made his Trojan debut, posting three points and four rebounds in 10 minutes of game time.
"It's nice to get Harrison some extra minutes," Enfield said. "He's really developing and improved tremendously since this summer."
Mathews broke free of a mini-shooting slump with a 13-point performance Tuesday night. He made four of his seven shots, including three of four from distance.
"In my first game, I was kind of anxious. I didn't know what to expect from college basketball coming in," Mathews said. "A&M, my first road game ever. Big road game. I felt kind of anxious again, but this game I felt pretty comfortable and felt like I was part of the team and I felt that I was not a freshman."
"The first couple of games I was struggling to get in a rhythm," Mathews added. "It was kind of hard for me. I'm a shooter, but I couldn't hit any shots, but this game my teammates found me in the right spots and I was able to get out of this slump and knock them down."
The Trojans were able to empty the bench late, getting their three walk-ons into the game with Samer Dhillon and Devin Fleming getting in for the final minute while Chicago State transfer Kurt Karis played four minutes, something Enfield was happy with.
"He has become a pretty good basketball player too, so it was nice to get him in the game. He's done a great job at practice the last couple of weeks to earn those minutes."
"We came out and we did what we wanted to do," junior Elijah Stewart said. "We wanted to clear the bench tonight. I know our walk-ons, they play really hard in practice...and they deserve to play some times in the game."
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