Athletic, talented Trojans motivated by last season's NCAA snub
USC aims to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out on a third straight appearance last March in one of the bigger snubs in recent years. The Trojans had an RPI of No. 34 entering Selection Sunday and ended the day as the highest-ranked major conference team ever left out of a 68-team field.
Their effort to make it back will come as coach Andy Enfield faces the most significant roster turnover since the early years of his tenure, following the departures of senior point guard Jordan McLaughlin, shooting guard Elijah Stewart and forward Chimezie Metu. There’s talent, bolstered by the arrival of Enfield’s highest-ranked recruiting class, but a younger roster.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Andy Enfield
2017-18 RECORD (PAC-12): 24-12 (12-6)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Western Kentucky 79-75 in the second round
G Jordan McLaughlin (12.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 7.8 apg)
F Chimezie Metu (15.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg)
G Elijah Stewart (11.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
The fate of the Trojans could, in large part, be determined by the health of Bennie Boatwright, who opted to return for his senior season. After suffering a season-ending knee injury in February, Boatwright underwent surgery in April to repair the partially torn patellar tendon in his left knee, sidelining him for most of the summer. It continued his recent injury woes. Boatwright missed two months of his sophomore season due to a knee sprain. When healthy, the 6'10" forward is considered an NBA talent, a prototype stretch-4 and at the very least a skilled scorer at the college level (he averaged 18 points in USC’s three NCAA Tournament games in 2017).
Without McLaughlin, the Trojans also hope to rely more on Boatwright as a playmaker, assisting with ball-handling duties, in addition to his outside shooting.
“With his skill sets, we think he can be a great distributor of the basketball,” Enfield says.
The departure of Metu will prompt Nick Rakocevic, a 6'11" junior from Chicago, to take on a larger role as the team’s primary rim protector. Metu ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 1.7 blocks per game last season. Rakocevic has a similarly long frame.
The Trojans do not have an obvious replacement for McLaughlin, who ranked third in the nation in assists last season (7.8 apg) and was the veteran presence who helped spark the program’s resurgence under Enfield. The team will rely on both Derryck Thornton, a fourth-year junior, and Elijah Weaver, an incoming freshman. With McLaughlin, the Trojans had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Pac-12. They will need Thornton to be a more precise passer and distributor after the former Duke Blue Devil averaged more turnovers (1.4) than assists (1.2) in 25 games last season.
Enfield says he is “very confident” in both players. “We just have to play a team concept and share the basketball,” he adds.
The backcourt otherwise includes an array of perimeter scorers, including shooting guard Jonah Mathews, a junior who shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range last season.
Senior Shaqquan Aaron and sophomore Jordan Usher, both 6'7", can play multiple guard spots as well as the 4.
Kevin Porter Jr., an athletic 6'6" incoming freshman from Seattle, could also push to crack the starting five after impressing observers over the summer at the Nike Hoop Summit.
Enfield has the versatility to mix and match lineups.
On the one hand, USC took a hit last season as a preseason top-10 team that not only missed the NCAA Tournament but also was linked to the FBI’s investigation into corruption and bribery in college basketball. On the other hand, as the Trojans enter their sixth season under Enfield, they have continued to raise their recruiting profile and will feature another athletic roster loaded with talent. They should once again be a factor in the Pac-12 race — they finished in second place last year — and be in the hunt for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Postseason Prediction: One & Done
Pac-12 Prediction: 4th