- USC showed major promise in 2016-17, winning 26 games and notching two NCAA tournament victories. Could the Trojans be primed for a major leap in 2017-18?
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 13, USC.
1. Is this the year the Trojans have been building toward?
Andy Enfield’s first two seasons in the Pac-12, when the Trojans went a combined 5–31, left many in the college basketball world wondering if the former coach of Dunk City was a bad hire. By the end of his fourth season in Los Angeles (2016–17), it was clear Enfield had his team headed in the right direction. The Trojans posted a 26–10 record last season and won two NCAA tournament games, and they’re poised to have an even better 2017–18.
6’10” sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright (15.1 points, 4.5 rebounds) decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft. The Trojans will also bring back 6’11” forward Chimezie Metu. Plus, they’ll add transfer Derryck Thornton, formerly of Duke, and two talented freshmen in Charles O’Bannon and Jordan Usher. That type of scoring talent could enable USC to push Arizona for the league title. This is building to be the type of season USC envisioned when it hired Enfield.
2. How will Enfield distribute minutes among so many talented perimeter players?
The Trojans should be overrun with talented guards next year. How does Enfield make sure all of them get enough playing time to be happy?
Thornton is the most intriguing player in the mix, because he’s already proven he can score at a high level. The 6’2’', 185-pounder started 20 of 36 games and averaged 7.1 points and 2.6 assists at Duke in 2015-16 before opting to head back home (he is from Los Angeles). He’ll be expected to contribute, and likely start, immediately. O’Bannon and Usher are the unknowns. O’Bannon is a 6’6”, 195-pound wing out of Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High with a legit mid-range game. Usher is a 6’6”, 180-pounder praised by Scout.com for his “tremendous motor.”
Then there are all the guys returning, led by 6’1” guard Jordan McLaughlin (12.9 ppg, 197 assists, 80 turnovers), 6’5” guard Elijah Stewart (12.3 ppg) and 6'7'' forward Shaqquan Aaron (7.6 ppg), whom a report on Wednesday indicated is expected back in Los Angeles after declaring for the draft without hiring an agent. Are there enough minutes for everyone?
3. Can Metu—or someone else—have another huge off-season?
The 6’11”, 225-pound sophomore forward was the Pac-12’s most improved player last season. He more than doubled his scoring and rebounding averages and became an integral piece for the Trojans. He can impact every position defensively, whether or not he’s swatting away shots (50 blocks as a freshman, and 55 as a sophomore). Perhaps more importantly, though, Metu proved he can create his own shot. He greatly improved his ability to handle the ball and has an inside game that complements the Trojans’ many capable perimeter scorers. Metu changed his shot, and his free throw percentage improved from 51.3% to 74.1%.
Other young forwards on the USC roster—especially someone like Nick Rakocevic—can look to Metu for inspiration. Rakocevic played in all 36 games last season, averaging just 5.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per contest. A big jump from him would give USC a needed boost. The Trojans won’t lack for depth on the perimeter, but it will be important to establish more guys on the frontline capable of spelling Metu and Boatwright.