Seth Davis (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Andy Enfield maintained an even-keeled demeanor as he directed his team through a two-hour practice inside the Galen Center last week. The session was being held in preparation for a 10-day exhibition tour through Spain and France, which began Tuesday. The NCAA allows teams to practice 10 times before they leave for such excursions, and while USC has been all business during these bonus sessions, once the team arrives in Europe the only basketball activities on the schedule will be the games themselves. “We don’t even take balls with us,” associate head coach Jason Hart says. “No practices, no film study. We want them to just enjoy the cultural experience and become a family.”
From a basketball standpoint, the extra work should help a team that is welcoming eight newcomers, six of whom are freshmen. Beyond that, the flight overseas will mark the beginning of a welcome respite for a program that has encountered a lot of turbulence over the last two years.
USC’s bumpy ride began in September 2017, when then-assistant coach Tony Bland was arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. In January, Bland pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery and was later sentenced to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service. The basketball program was cleared by a self-imposed investigation conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh, and while the NCAA has yet to weigh in on the matter, the hope at USC is that the worst is behind it.
Things have not been much better on the court. In 2017-18, the Trojans finished second in the Pac-12 and reached the conference tournament final, but they did not an at-large invite to the NCAA Tournament. Last season, USC went 8-10 in the conference (16-17 overall) and missed out on March Madness for the sixth time in the last eight years. The season was riddled with injuries and controversy, including suspensions for conduct issues to two players, Kevin Porter Jr. and Jordan Usher.
Hope always springs eternal this time of year, but USC fans have a genuine cause for optimism. The program has brought in what Enfield refers to as “the highest-ranked recruiting class in USC history.” The group, which is ranked sixth nationally by the 247Sports Composite, includes a McDonald’s All-American in 6-9 forward Isaiah Mobley as well as another five-star forward, 6-8 Onyeka Okongwu. Moreover, USC receiveed a commitment from Evan Mobley, a 7-foot center from Temecula, Calif., (and Isaiah’s older brother), who is No. 3 in The Athletic 40, a ranking of all high school prospects regardless of class. Their father, Eric, who spent 11 years as a grassroots coach in southern California, has been an assistant at USC since March 2018.
USC lost of its top seven scorers from last season, including its top three 3-point shooters. The few veterans who are back are hungry to return to the NCAA Tournament, so they are welcoming the newcomers with open arms. All of this adds up to a healthy — and sorely needed — spirit of renewal as the Trojans take flight for their European tour.
“Any time a program goes through some turmoil, you have to stay together and work even harder,” Enfield says. “We’re very focused on the future, and we think this foreign tour will propel us into a great preseason. We want our players focused on the future, not the past.”
The big question
How good are the new guys?
It would be nice if Enfield could slowly work in his freshmen and graduate transfers, but he does not have that luxury. Unfortunately, Isaiah Mobley has not been able to take advantage of the extra summer practices because he is recovering from June surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. He is scheduled to be cleared in about a month.
At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Mobley has both the size and skills to have an instant impact. The larger question will be whether he can handle the pressure and expectations. If he is USC’s best player, the Trojans have a chance for a great season. If he struggles, the team will probably underachieve. It helps that Mobley has been a visible prospect for several years, and he played for the Compton Magic, which is as high-profile as a grassroots program can get. He is no stranger to the spotlight. “He’s definitely not shy,” Enfield says. “We expect a lot from Isaiah. His court vision and passing ability, as well as his inside-outside presence, will be needed.
Another freshman with potential to have an immediate impact is Max Agbonkpolo, a 6-8 forward from nearby Rancho Santa Margarita, who was ranked No. 54 nationally in the Class of 2019 by 247Sports. Enfield also hopes that the two grad transfers, 6-0 Quinton Adlesh (Columbia) and 6-6 Daniel Utomi (Akron), will bring outside shooting help as well as the maturity of veterans who have played in a combined 183 games.
In bringing in so many new players, Enfield says, “it also gives our program an opportunity to develop a new identity.” This hints that the old one hadn’t been working quite so well. The Trojans had talent last season but lacked toughness. They ranked 118th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, the lowest in Enfield’s six years. In league games, they were last in the Pac-12 in offensive free throw rate. And even though USC was the seventh-tallest team in the country, it was 255th nationally in defensive rebound percentage and 221st in offensive rebound percentage, according to KenPom.com.
There is much to be decided in terms of lineups and playing time, but the one certainty is that a large bulk of the minutes will go to guys who have not yet played a game for USC. If they aren’t good enough, USC won’t be good enough.
Guards: Let’s start with the good news. Jonah Matthews, a 6-3 senior from Santa Monica, Calif., has been a regular starter at shooting guard the last two seasons and last year was the Trojans’ third-leading scorer (12.6 points). Matthews is a charismatic, natural-born leader, an asset that will be very much in need. Last year his teammates voted him captain. “We call him a culture kid,” Hart says. “He does everything you ask, and you never have to ask twice.”
Matthews’ major flaw has been his inability to get to the line. He only attempted 1.3 free throws per game as a junior. “We need him to be more of a playmaker,” Enfield says. “He has the ability to get into the lane and put pressure on the defense. He’s proven himself to be an All-Pac-12 caliber player.”
The off-guard position will be shared by the two grad transfers. During his three full seasons at Akron, Daniel Utomi shot 39.1 percent from 3-point range. At a sturdy 6-6, 225 pounds, he looks like someone who could overpower smaller defenders by taking them inside, but that is not his game. Last season nearly 62 percent of his shot attempts were from behind the arc. Another California native, Quinton Adlesh (Arroyo Grande) left Columbia ranked No. 4 on the school’s career 3-pointers list (180). He made 40.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in his three full seasons there.
Now the bad news: USC’s biggest question mark is at the most important position on the floor — point guard. Enfield thought he had the answer when 6-3 point guard Derryck Thornton transferred from Duke three years ago, but during his two seasons at USC, Thornton never quite panned out. He was replaced in the lineup in late February, and when the season was over he left for Boston College as a grad transfer.
The player who supplanted Thornton, 6-6 freshman Elijah Weaver, was a capable place-holder, at best. In his final four games as a starter, he had 11 assists and six turnovers. Weaver has excellent size for the position and is a respectable long-range shooter (35.5 percent from 3), but he is not a natural playmaker. When you watch him play, he does not look like a point guard. He looks like a big guard who is being asked to initiate the offense. Weaver enters this season as the incumbent starter, but the best-case scenario for USC is that 6-3 freshman Kyle Sturdivant earns substantial minutes at the point, thus allowing Weaver to move to his more natural position off the ball. Another freshman, Ethan Anderson, is also in the mix. “They’re going to fight it out,” Hart says. “They’ll let us know through competition.”
Wings: Isaiah Mobley does not have the experience that Bennie Boatwright did, but he brings a similar skill set. His ability to make jump shots and make plays off the bounce should be help USC make up for its deficiencies at point guard. “He’s very, very heady,” Hart says. “Scores around the basket efficiently. Great team guy. And he’s real tough. All he needs now is experience.”
Max Agbonkpolo, who picked USC over Arizona, among other schools, has been one of the revelations of the summer workouts. He doesn’t quite pack the muscle that Okongwu does, but he is a graceful, lithe 6-8 wing with a soft touch. Guys like that tend to play. “He’s been a surprise so far,” Hart says. “When we recruited him we knew his best basketball was ahead of him, but he’s shown a lot of promise.”
It will also be interesting to see whether 6-6 junior forward Charles “Chuck” O’Bannon Jr. can finally crack the rotation. He came in two years ago with a big pedigree (his father, Charles, and uncle Ed played for UCLA’s 1995 NCAA championship team), but he languished on the bench as a freshman and redshirted last season because of a broken finger.
Bigs: USC’s best returning player is Nick Rakocevic, a 6-11 senior center who started the last two years. The Chicago native had a stellar junior campaign, ranking in the top 10 of the conference in points (14.7 per game), rebounds (9.3) and blocks (1.4). Rakocevic, who arrived on campus as a 205-pound freshman, has had a hard time putting on weight, but at 230 pounds he is 10 pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season. He believes the extra strength will make him more of a force around the rim. “My expectations are high,” he says. “This is my last go-round. I want to end with a bang, and we have the right people to do that.”
Unlike a lot of freshman big men, Onyeka Okongwu comes to USC with a college-level physique. The two-time California Mr. Basketball also has an advanced skill set, complete with a midrange face-up game, and a habit of winning. During his four years at Chino Hills High School, he helped the Huskies win three state titles. He was also a featured starter for Compton Magic and was named MVP at the NBA Top 100 Camp.
This is one area of the lineup where the Trojans could have more players than minutes, but Rakocevic bats away the suggestion he would have a hard time accepting it if the young guys took his playing time. “I’ve had my time,” he says. “I’ve had games where I’ve played 40 minutes, and I’ve had games where I played two. The best part about basketball is when you’re able to win games and be on a national level and be seen by everybody. Me and Jonah are the only ones on the team that know what it’s like to play in the tournament. I just want to get back to that.”
The Trojans could be even bigger than they were last season. If Enfield puts his best five players on the floor, Mobley, Rakocevic and Ogonkwu could play a lot of minutes together. If that happens, expect USC to play a lot of zone. Enfield has been playing increasingly more of that since he came to USC. Last year the Trojans played zone on 44.4 percent of their possessions, according to Synergy. Keep in mind that Hart is a former Syracuse point guard, so the zone experience is there.
Spotlight on: Charles O’Bannon Jr.
Imagine what it’s like to be a McDonald’s All-American with a famous last name, only to average five minutes as a freshman on a team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament – and in your hometown, no less. Though O’Bannon played his high school ball in Las Vegas at Bishop Gorman High School, he grew up in Compton and dealt with a lot of questions during that challenging first season.
“It was more embarrassing than anything,” O’Bannon says. “But it was all on myself. Can’t blame nobody else. We’re in L.A. and there are a lot of distractions here. When you get to college, you have to be really be focused on it every day, all day, if you want to be good. So that’s what I’m doing right now.”
To his credit, O’Bannon never thought about transferring. He entered last season hoping things would be better, but shattered his left pinky in practice in early November. Four days later, he underwent surgery and had eight pins screwed into the finger. O’Bannon thought he would only be out for a few weeks, but the finger took much longer to heal than anticipated. In mid-January, the coaching staff decided he should shut it down and apply for a medical redshirt.
The respite was unwelcome but not necessarily unhealthy. It gave O’Bannon the chance to do some soul searching and focus on his academics. Pointing out that “I haven’t played in a full basketball game since high school,” O’Bannon is primed and focused for a fresh start. He deactivated his Instagram account and has changed his jersey number from No. 13 to No. 5.
“It’s an exciting time for Chuck,” Enfield says. “He’s worked hard and his skills have improved. We just need him to keep showing up every day with that mentality and good things will happen.”
USC is a prominent program with a strong brand, yet it has a hard time winning recruiting battles not only with the national blue bloods, but also the local blue blood over in Westwood. So the coaching staff relishes the chance to find local players who weren’t quite good enough to get the love from UCLA — and who are plenty pissed off about it. “I understand that because I was born and raised here and I wanted to go to UCLA,” Hart says.
Moreover, Enfield wanted to rebuild a sustainable winning culture, which has been lacking since three years ago, when USC had a veteran-laden squad that graduated the winningest class in school history. “Our staff made a big emphasis to recruit players we thought would fit the culture,” Enfield says. “We looked for guys who would come to USC with a chip on their shoulder and want to help the team win.”
Okongwu is a perfect example. As a freshman, he played at Chino Hills on the same team as Lonzo Ball, so the then-UCLA coaching staff saw him a lot. Yet UCLA did not show nearly the same level of interest early on and by the time the Bruins offered him a scholarship, it was too late. Of course, it helped that Enfield was on the verge of hiring Eric Mobley, Okongwu’s former coach with the Compton Magic, but the USC staff’s decision to target Okongwu early undoubtedly paid off.
“Our staff fell in love with him when he was in ninth grade,” Enfield says. “He would get in a lot of tip-ins and dunks at a young age. Over time he developed into a terrific all-around player. He can score with his back to the basket, but he’s also quick enough to face up, and he’s an exceptional rebounder and passer.”
The staff is still smarting from the mistake it made in overlooking Kihei Clark, a 5-9 point guard from Woodland Hills, Calif., whom USC (and a lot of other schools out west) declined to recruit. Clark ended up at Virginia, where he played an important role in helping the Cavaliers win the national championship in April. USC’s emphasis on recruiting slightly overlooked local players led to the signing of Agbonkpolo, who Enfield says “has as much upside as anybody on our team. He’s a 6-8 small forward who can probably play three positions for us.”
Anderson did not crack the top 300 in the 247Sports ranking, but he is an L.A. product who won a city championship for Fairfax High School. He originally committed to UNLV, but he reopened his recruitment after the school fired Marvin Menzies. Even though USC had already signed Sturdivant, Anderson still wanted to come. That says a lot about his competitive mindset.
As for Sturdivant, who is ranked No. 141 nationally by the same service, he likewise comes from a prominent program, Norcross (Ga.) High School. “Kyle is exceptionally fast with the ball,” Enfield says. “Both those players affect winning. They guard the ball on one end and make plays for teammates at the other end. They’re both good on and off the ball.”
Finally, when it came time to check out the transfer portal, Enfield and his staff looked to replace the outside shooting they knew they were losing but to do it with players who would contribute to the identity they were trying to establish. “We wanted players that had high basketball IQs and are tough mentally and physically,” Enfield says. The Trojans believe they found that in Utomi and Adlesh.
The nonconference schedule was 180th in the country last season in the NET rankings. This year’s rank will probably be a little lower considering the top two nonconference opponents last season, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, are not on the schedule.
The Trojans return an off-campus home-and-home at TCU on Dec. 6. They play LSU in late December at the Staples Center and host Enfield’s former school, Florida Gulf Coast, on Dec. 29. The toughest road opponent is Nevada, although the Wolf Pack basically lost its entire roster (including its coach).
USC will also play in the Orlando Invitational. Its first game will be against Harvard, and the field also includes Marquette and Maryland.
But the biggest problem with USC’s schedule the past two years has been the overall weakness of the Pac-12. The conference should be much better this season, and the good news/bad news is that USC will play most of the top teams twice: Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and Colorado. If the Trojans finish in the top three of the league, it probably won’t matter that they don’t have a top-30 nonconference schedule.
There is no denying that there is considerable talent in this program. Yes, the Trojans will have to depend heavily on freshmen, but there are enough vets to provide a good mix of old and young. Plus, if a team is going to be young, it’s better to be young in the frontcourt. The wild cards could be the two grad transfers, Adlesh and Utomi. With their shooting skills and advanced ages, they bring strengths where the team has its biggest weaknesses. Staying healthy is always important, and you have to wonder about chemistry when you bring in so many new players. But if everything falls into place, including the rising fortunes of the much-maligned Pac-12, USC most likely will get back to the NCAA Tournament. Anything beyond that is gravy.
There’s a reason this team hasn’t been to the tournament in two years. And in today’s game, it’s a huge problem to go into the season without a bona fide playmaker at the point. There is a lot for Enfield to manage, and it is never a sure bet when you ask a couple of freshman forwards to carry a team. An unfortunate injury here, an unexpected underachiever there, and the Trojans once again will be on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.
Given what this program has been through with regards to the Bland case, it has to be a relief for Enfield to be able to focus purely on basketball questions for the moment. And yes, there are significant questions there, but the success on the recruiting trail, coupled with the impending arrival of Evan Mobley, has bought Enfield some hope — and time. All in all, USC has a chance to put a pretty good product on the floor. If everything lines up, people could be talking about USC for all the right reasons. That would be a welcome change.