It was hard to know what this USC basketball team would become — could become — after it lost by 13 points at home to Florida Gulf Coast to open the season, squeaked by Vermont a couple games later and in general endured an underwhelming start to the campaign.
Of course, there were reasons for that. Five-star freshman big man Vincent Iwuchukwu was expected to be a major part of the plans before his cardiac arrest scare in July delayed his ultimate debut until mid-January. The Trojans would also be counting on freshmen and relatively inexperienced sophomores to step into key roles.
So all told, to enter the final week of the regular season with a 21-8 record, tied for second place in the Pac-12 standings (13-5) and seemingly in good position for an NCAA tournament berth, coach Andy Enfield is certainly pleased as the Trojans prepare for a marquee matchup with No. 8 Arizona (24-5, 13-5) on Thursday night at Galen Center (8 pm PT on ESPN).
“This team has really improved because we had two experienced guys — Drew and Boogie — everybody else was trying to find their way, trying to make a name for themselves whether [that be] in the starting lineup, come off the bench and play minutes. Our rotation wasn’t set, and we had a lot of inexperience — five freshmen, some sophomores. Very proud of this team,” Enfield said. “This group has improved as much as any team we’ve had here at USC — it’s been 10 years now and this team has improved as much as any other team we’ve had. “
In his most recent NCAA tournament projections, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Trojans slotted as a No. 10 seed after previously having USC squarely on the bubble.
The Trojans have won four straight games since their stumble on the road against the Oregon schools and have a chance to really solidify their place in the NCAA tourney field if they can earn the season split with the Wildcats, who won the first meeting 81-66 in Tucson back on Jan. 19.
“I think you have to play through the end of your season because it depends on what other teams do as well. We know what’s at stake,” Enfield said. “We’ve played really good basketball lately. I think we’re 8-1 when we’ve had the full roster. … So we’re in the right place at the right time as far as health-wise and playing good basketball. We have two opportunities this week on our home court and then we go to the Pac-12 tournament. So as far as the NCAA tournament goes, obviously we want to make that, we feel like we’ve done enough to be in right now, but there’s a lot of basketball to be played in the next two weeks.”
Those aforementioned veterans have continued to lead the way. Boogie Ellis belongs in the Pac-12 Player of the Year conversation, averaging 17.2 points and connecting on 38.4 percent of his 3-pointers (71 of 185) to rank third in the conference in both scoring and made 3s. And Drew Peterson has continued doing a little bit of everything, averaging 14.6 PPG, a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game and a team-best 4.7 assists per game (fifth-best in the league).
Sophomore Kobe Johnson has been a steady defensive presence all season and has increased his offensive production down the stretch (12.9 PPG over the last seven games) and freshman Tre White (9.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG) have played key roles as well.
And as Enfield mentioned, getting Iwuchukwu back on the court and having guard Reese Dixon-Waters and center defensive stalwart Joshua Morgan recently return to form after four-game injury absences has allowed the Trojans to start peaking, winning their last four games by an average margin of 19.8 points.
Dixon-Waters is 5 of 9 on 3-pointers over the last three games while averaging 12 PPG in that stretch, Morgan had 3 blocks in each of the last two games and Iwuchukwu (2 blocks in 13 minutes vs. Utah) continues to grow within the framework of the Trojans’ system.
“Vince is coming along. He’s a much better defender than he was last month. The biggest thing freshman struggle with is team defense — knowing where to be — and individual defense at times. And Vince had no training camp, preseason, summer , he had no repetitions so he was thrown into the fire in January in the middle of the Pac-12 season and expected to guard some of the best big men in the league and it was hard on him,” Enfield said. “So, slowly but surely he is learning our defensive system, learning where to be and his reaction time is much quicker.”
The Trojans will need him Thursday night as Arizona presents one of the toughest front-court challenges in the league.
Azuolas Tubelis, a 6-foot-11 forward, leads the Pac-12 in both scoring (19.6 PPG) and rebounds (9.1), while 7-foot center Oumar Ballo is second in rebounding at 8.8 per game while averaging 14.3 PPG.
Then, of course, there are the three guards all averaging in double figures offensively as well as in Courtney Ramey (10.8 PPG), Kerr Kriisa (10.6 PPG) and Pelle Larsson (10.4 PPG). In the teams’ last meeting, Arizona shot 50 percent from 3, led by Ramey (5 of 10).
“Arizona is a top 10 team in the country. They’re very talented, very good, and their big guys are two of the best bigs as a tandem in the country. They demand a lot of attention, scoring, rebounding and toughness. We have to do a good job on them and also get to the shooters and not give up double-digit 3s,” Enfield said.