#10 USC improved to 11-0 with a hard fought, 66-61 victory over UCI on Wednesday night. For just the second time this season, the Trojans trailed at the half, and were required to come back from the largest deficit of the season, 10 points.
Amongst calls to limit turnovers and improve ball movement, the Trojans once again came our relatively flat, and required the proverbial switch to be flipped yet again in the second half. Make no mistake, UCI is a competitive team, they are big, experienced, tough and devastatingly patient on offense. Collin Welp, who has seemingly been at UCI for 10 years, is a matchup nightmare, and gave the Trojans all they could handle, contributing 24 points to lead all scorers. But USC's defensive efforts were enough to prevail, eventually holding the Anteaters to 37.5% from the field, and just 32% in the second half. This Trojan team can defend at an elite level, when it wants/needs to. The key for the duration of the season will be to commit to a full 40 minutes of hard-nose gritty defense, each game out.
Describing the efforts of Isaiah Mobley and Chevez Goodwin as "good" would be a drastic understatement. The Trojan big men were fantastic in this game, and take sole responsibility for the the Trojan victory. Isaiah had his third consecutive 20 point game, as he had 22 points and 12 rebounds. Mobley has seemingly found the perfect balance of outside shooter and inside threat. Isaiah was 2-5 from beyond the arc, and an efficient 7-11 from inside the three point line. Mobley has gone through bouts of passive play, but I can confidently say that he has fully embraced his role as the go-to scorer on this team. After playing second fiddle to both Big O and his younger brother, Isaiah has transformed into a tremendous leader and working himself up mock-drafts everywhere. While Welp was able to earn his 24 points, Mobley and Goodwin did make it tough for him, keeping him at bay to the tune of 10-25 from the field.
Chevez Goodwin was even more impressive for Enfield's Trojans, and once again came up clutch in the final minutes. After just 6 first half points, Goodwin finished with 23 points and 6 boards. Goodwin has been a menace on the offensive glass, and his put back with 24 seconds left sealed the game for USC. Although only 6'9", Chevez's high energy motor and knack for rebounding have turned him into a premium big in college basketball. Goodwin has a tendency to be whatever USC needs him to be in a given game, whether that be lead scorer, rim protector or outlet man. It goes to show that Andy has created a true "team first" environment with anyone and everyone willing to step up in a given opportunity. Overall, an amazing effort by the front court to secure this win for USC.
With the exception of that 4 minute stretch against Eastern Kentucky, USC has defended at a high level all season. Once again, the Trojan defense came through, halting UCI's upset bid on Wednesday. USC's length on the perimeter has made opponent three point shooting extremely inefficient. Even if the likes of Drew Peterson and Max Agbonkpolo are unable to block a shot, the trajectory is altered in such a way that converting is almost impossible. UCI was just 4-17 from deep, and this has been par for the course against the Trojan perimeter defense.
While he only had 6 points against UCI, Max Agbonkpolo continues to improve and contribute across the box score. Aside from Boogie Ellis (see below) Max may be one of the more important players for USC down the stretch, he has turned into an elite perimeter defender, and if he can continue to improve his offensive efficiency, USC will roll. Max has become active on the offensive glass, and I am here for it. While Wednesday was not his best game, it is encouraging to see him impact a game even when his scoring is not there.
USC trailed by 8 points at the half and it was clear that the Trojans were in a dogfight. Credit to the newly extended Andy Enfield for making critical halftime adjustments to put the Trojans in a position to win. Offensively, USC put its best scorers in a position to succeed, and the big men responded extremely well. I am obviously unsure as to what was said in the locker room, but Andy has found a way to get through to the team and inspire. Andy has taken some criticism in the past about being a great recruiter and game planner, but lacked some creativity during in-game situations, not anymore. From inbound plays to defensive shifts, Andy has established himself as one of the better coaches in college basketball, and USC's nation leading 11 wins are a testament to his hard work and improvement as a head coach. A job well done by Enfield, and a much deserved extension!
Boogie Ellis' three game slump has unfortunately continued. It is no secret, USC needs Ellis to be a major contributor on offense if this team has big March aspirations. Things appeared to be back to normal once Ellis hit a long three pointer on his first shot attempt, but aside from two late FTs the Junior guard was kept in check, finishing with 5 points on 1-4 shooting. Confidence does not appear to be an issue as Ellis is still playing with high intensity, the shots simply are not falling. To make matters worse, Ellis only had one assist in Wednesday's game. If he is not scoring, he needs to be distributing the ball to open teammates.
Both Trojan turnovers and defensive rebounds have loomed large in this recent "funk," I use the quotes because USC is still 11-0, so it is hard to be too upset, but this team has to stop these lapses from becoming habitual. USC had 11 turnovers in Wednesday's game, and it could have been much worse. Included in Andy's halftime adjustments must have been an emphasis on ball security. After committing 9 turnovers in the first half, USC had just 2 in the second half, by the same token, UCI scored 12 points off turnovers in the first half, and were shutout in the second.
The sloppy play needs to stop now, and the same goes for defensive rebounding. UCI had 10 offensive rebounds, which led to 13 points. Offensive rebounds are inevitable, but USC needs to continue to work hard on boxing out and ensuring that each opponent is accounted for. In the LBSU recap, we spoke about the backcourt contributing to the glass, and the UCI game was much better. Peterson (7 rebounds), Agbonkpolo (5 rebounds), Anderson (4 rebounds) all aided the big men on the glass. This number should be single digits moving forward, and it incumbent on all 5 players to work hard.
Overall USC is 11-0 and a top 10 team, and we now move into the meat of the schedule, two power 5 opponents and a huge home series vs. the Arizona schools. But first, USC has a date with Georgia Tech in the Colangelo Classic in Phoenix.
Georgia Tech Preview
The Yellow Jackets enter Saturday's game with a 5-4 record after dropping three straight to the likes of UNC, Wisconsin and LSU. Georgia Tech was predicted to finish 9th in the 15 team ACC, having undergone a major roster transformation. Tech coach Josh Pastner (who was one rumored to be a favorite for the USC job) has done a good job during his tenure in Atlanta, and led the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA Tournament last year, eventually losing to Loyola Chicago.
The Jackets are led by 6'5" Senior Guard Michael Devoe, who is averaging 22 points per game on the season (including a 37 point masterpiece against Georgia). The left-handed shooting guard will be the best pure scorer USC has faced so far this season, and I expect a combination of Drew Peterson and Max Agbonkpolo to get the unenviable assignment. Devoe is dangerous from anywhere on the court, he has converted over 50% of his three point attempts, and is unusually efficient for such a high powered scorer.
After Devoe, USC will be tasked with slowing down a familiar face, former Trojan Jordan Usher. In a somewhat surprising move, Usher returned home to Georgia after a successful freshman year at USC, and has become a key contributor for Pastner. Usher is averaging nearly 14 points and a team leading 7 rebounds per game. Trojan fans, and Coach Enfield, know what to expect from Usher, a hard-nosed wing who can shoot but prefers to operate inside using brute strength to create space.
Inside, 6'10" Center Rodney Howard will have his hands full with the tandem of Goodwin/Mobley, especially since his front court mate, Khalid Moore stands at just 6'7". Georgia Tech runs a guard heavy rotation, with only two forwards seeing more than 10 minutes per game. We will see if Pastner gets creative this afternoon, but USC will have a significant size advantage. The interior offense should be wide open, and there will be mismatches all over the Court, particularly on the wing.
Will Boogie Ellis get it going tonight?
Can USC clean up the turnovers? Tech will most likely bring pressure and try and speed up the game on USC, how well do the Trojans react to the tempo change, and can they keep their composure and hold on to the ball.
Will we a complete 40 minute game?
Has Isaiah White become obsolete in the rotation, or is he still recovering from injury? (This would be a perfect game for White).
The smaller Yellow Jacket lineup should mean Ethan Anderson is in the starting lineup, let's see if Andy breaks from the formula and plays to match the opponent or take advantage of the mismatch?
If USC can prevent Devoe from going crazy and limit turnovers, this should be a fairly straight forward game. GaTech has no answer for Mobley/Goodwin and Trojan size should prevail. I like USC to win this one by 10-12 points.