14 minutes into Monday night’s game against Arizona State, USC trailed the Sun Devils 22-10. USC had turned the ball over eight times, and was shooting an embarrassing 3-18 from the field. Needless to say, things were looking bleak. USC appeared to have recaptured some of its mojo in the Rockies, but not even the return of a half capacity crowd at Galen Center was able to energize the team…until the real USC, the 15th ranked Trojans, decided to show up.
Trailing 22-10 with 6 minutes remaining in the first half, USC caught fire, and received some much needed fire power from some new faces. The Trojans received a massive jolt from Reese Dixon Waters who helped spur a 21-2 run to close out the 1st half and give the Trojans a 7 point lead at the half. The Trojans hit three pointers on four straight possession to climb all the way back (2 from Dixon Waters and 2 from Mobley), and the Trojans never looked back.
Once the Trojans took the lead, they never looked back. USC outscored ASU by 15 points in the 2nd half, to win the game 78-56 and improve to 17-2 (7-2 in Pac-12 play). The Sun Devils were shorthanded in this game, and their lack of depth was apparent. Both Coach Bobby Hurley and Guard Jay Heath were suspended for this game after confronting officials at the conclusion of their previous game against Stanford. In fact, ASU received roughly 90% of its scoring from the trio of Jalen Graham, Marreon Jackson and DJ Horne (50/56 points). Once USC’s defense locked in the Sun Devils had no response for a rolling Trojan offense. ASU ended the game shooting just 34% from the field, compared to 46% from the Trojans.
Balanced scoring and tough defense have been a trademark of this Trojan team, and the final 26 minutes were a brilliant example of this.
Reese Dixon Waters and Kobe Johnson have earned increased playing time. Andy has talked religiously about just how spirited practices have been. These two freshmen have made their mark in practice, learned the system, and have made huge strides on the court. Dixon-Waters has impressed on both ends of the court, bringing size and an unrelenting motor to the perimeter. Reese spurred the comeback by hitting 2 three pointers in three possessions, and finished with 8 points and a pair of rebounds. RDW also appears to be the most comfortable FT shooter on the team, something that will certainly earn him minutes in close games, and he should be a tremendous asset for Enfield, especially against more physical guards. A very impressive showing from the 2nd year freshman (RDW enrolled during his senior year of HS since Covid caused a season postponement).
Kobe Johnson is another freshman who has forced his way into the lineup. Since game 1 the 6’6” Swiss army knife, has appeared extremely comfortable on the floor. Like the Mobley family, Johnson comes from a basketball family. His mother and father played college basketball, and Kobe’s brother, Jalen was a first round pick out of Duke last year. Kobe understands the game at a very high level, and always seems to do the right thing with the ball. Johnson played 19 minutes against the Sun Devils, and led USC is assists, with 5. He also drilled an open three at the conclusion of the first half, and added a steal, block and countless other tough defensive plays. Kobe is going to be a good one, and will continue to shine a bright light on Andy’s ability to identify diamonds in the rough while recruiting.
If Drew Peterson plays well, USC is very, very tough to beat. The 6’8” Wing added another 16 point, 8 rebound game under his belt, and once again used his creativity and versatility to create opportunities for USC. Peterson is comfortable improvising and has had several highlight reel finishes around the rim in the past week. Drew will have some very tough matchups in the near future, but a confident/aggressive Peterson who is not afraid to find his shot is a dynamic and critical weapon for the Trojans.
For those of you who do not know, Amar Ross is the last man on the Trojans bench. I was extremely happy to see Andy get the walk-ons in the game during garbage time, and Ross made it worth it. The 5’8” guard grabbed two rebounds and hit a deep three in his one minute of play. No, Ross is not going to be an impact player down the stretch for USC, but I was at the game and noticed a few things. The most important, was watching the bench’s reaction during the final minute. The entire team was standing and cheering, encouraging those who get little time in the limelight to take advantage of their playing time. This team genuinely appears to care about each other, and the unselfish nature translates to the way they play. Speaking of unselfish, USC had 17 assists on 27 made baskets, a solid ratio, especially as this team has struggled with bouts of isolation/hero ball.
While ball control improved during the first half run and the second half, USC has still struggled to maintain possession in key moments. USC turned the ball over 16 times against ASU, and the majority were the results of either lazy passes or overly aggressive decision-making. USC cannot afford sloppy play like this against UCLA, Arizona or Oregon, or the Trojans will be in trouble. Every pass needs to be made with a clear intent, and USC needs to let the lanes open up, rather than try and create them out of thin air. There is a delicate balance between utilizing our size and versatility advantages and being foolish about it, assuming we can make any pass at any time. I trust that cleaning this up will be a priority for the coaching staff moving forward.
The First 14
I have watched a lot of USC basketball in my 31 years. During my 4 years at USC, I watched our teams go a combined 50-80. I am not sure I have ever seen a worse 14 minute stretch of basketball. USC was lifeless, there was limited defense, not a semblance of an offense, and it looked like our players were struggling to simply dribble the ball. It was terrible on all fronts. I have no idea what causes a team to start a game like this, but it cannot happen again. USC is too deep to have cold streaks like this. There are men all the way down the bench who would be eager to prove themselves in a conference showdown like this. Andy tried a bunch of combinations, and ultimately struck gold with Dixon-Waters and the other starters, but it was tough sledding for the first 14 minutes. USC returns to the floor against Stanford for a revenge game on Thursday, and USC better hope to come out stronger than they did last night!
Overall, USC is now 17-2 and squarely in the mix for the Pac-12 title. At the time of writing, UCLA just defeated Arizona to give the Wildcats their first conference loss. The games between the Trojans, Wildcats and Bruins will likely determine the final rankings in the Pac.
We will be back Thursday to talk about keys to the rematch with Stanford!
Until then, Fight On!