USC comes to Haas Pavilion to take on Cal on Thursday night, and Trojans coach Andy Enfield says his team has improved since the Bears and 'SC last met. Looking at the conference standings, with USC in last place at 1-8, that is a tough case to make. But Enfield is adamant.
That earlier encounter, a 71-57 Trojan victory at the Galen Center Jan. 7, is USC's lone Pac-12 win. Troy had begun the league season 0-2, losing at Utah and Colorado before knocking off the Bears. But since that game the Trojans have lost six straight, the latest a 67-39 walloping at the hands of Utah on Sunday.
Enfield, whose freshman and sophomore laden team is the youngest among so-called Power Five conferences, understandably chooses to overlook the latest effort when he speaks of progress..
“We've been very proud of our team's improvement,” Enfield said on the coaches' conference call this week, speaking for his entire staff. “The players are working so hard and they're enthusiastic. We love coaching this team. We became a much better team from the beginning of the season to the midway point.
“If you look at our Pac-12 games, when we came back from the Utah/Colorado trip after our first two road games we had a win versus Cal, then a loss to Stanford (78-76) at the buzzer. At halftime, the UCLA game (won by the Bruins 83-66) was a one-possession game. And they really played well against us in the second half.
“Oregon (Ducks 75-67) was a tied game on the road with five minutes left. The Oregon State (Beavers 59-55) game came down to the last 30 seconds. The Colorado (Buffaloes 98-94) game was triple overtime. So if you look at the Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado games, you are talking about the last possession games where we had a chance to win. I'm not saying we deserved to win because the other teams were playing really good, but we had a chance. And we didn't win any of those.”
Then came the Utah debacle, in which the Trojans scored 12 points in the first half, shooting 19.2 per cent and missing all seven of their three-point tries.
“I had been really excited about our improvement,” Enfield said. “Then the Utah game, I don't understand what happened. We had been practicing well, been playing much better, a lot of improvement. And we were just flat on the offensive end, could not make a shot. Our confidence left us.”
In their non-conference games, in which the Trojans went 8-4, freshman point guard Jordan McLaughlin led the team in scoring with a 13.25 points per game average. But he has tailed off in conference play after separating a shoulder against Utah in the first game. He did not play against Cal, but returned against Stanford and has played every game since.
In conference play, however, he is averaging just 8.9 points, and he did not score against Utah this time, missing all seven of his field goal tries and had no assists.
“We can't expect him to be a perfect player," Enfield said after the game. “We have to give him coaching and guidance. And believe me, you'll see Jordan McLaughlin be a terrific basketball player in the Pac-12 here very soon. …Unfortunately, he's had a tough time putting some shots in. We're not down on him at all."
Enfield did concede that maybe the Trojans brought McLaughlin back too soon from his injury.
“It's been tough for him to come back,” Enfield said in the coaches' call. “He came back probably before it was 100 per cent. … He does therapy every day with the medical staff. He's a tough young man and he's still strengthening the shoulder every day. We're not going to use excuses for any of our players why we win or lose games. The Utah game had nothing to do with Jordan's shoulder.”
Another Trojan to do a disappearing act against the Utes was 6-11 forward Nikola Jovanovic, the sophomore from Serbia. He had scored in double figures in 15 straight games before getting just three against the Utes. That followed a career high 30 in the triple overtime affair against Colorado.
Jovanovic was a big factor in the victory over the Bears, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds. His respective season averages are 13.2 and 7.6.
“He's not physical,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked to describe Jovanovic. “In a lot of ways he's similar to David (Kravish). He does a good job of using his body to post up, walk you down and make plays. He'll face up and make shots. He's a good basketball player.”
One Trojan who is coming on of late is sophomore guard Katin Reinhardt, who is playing his first season with the Trojans after transferring from UNLV. He scored 35, including converting nine three-pointers, against Colorado and has averaged 18.5 points, while hitting 16 treys, in the last four games.
The current Trojans are paying for the sins of their predecessors. USC made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2007-2009) and seemed poised to join the nation's elite programs Then the NCAA stuck its investigative nose into the Trojans program and found many sins, including impermissible cash benefits to players. Coach Tim Floyd resigned in disgrace, the school self-imposed a ban on postseason play, and several high-profile recruits withdrew their commitments and went elsewhere.
The program hit rock bottom with a couple of last place finishes, but Enfield, who came from Florida Gulf Coast, put together a top-flight recruiting class that is learning on the job.
Martin said he felt the Trojans, “... are probably one of the most athletic teams in the league, but they're young. When the bulk of your team is freshmen and sophomores all they have to do is stay the course and they've got a chance to be pretty good.”
Enfield couldn't have said it better.
- Cal leads the all-time series against USC 131-123. The Bears have won five of the last seven meetings and are 63-40 against SC at home.
- Reinhardt tied the school record with his nine treys against Utah. Anthony Pendleton also had nine vs. Long Beach State on Dec. 9, 1987.
- USC is outscoring its opposition in the second half by nearly half a point and out shoots them 43.1 percent to 39.6 percent. In the first half of games, USC is outscored by 3.1 points per game and is out shot, 39.8 percent to 43.9 percent. Of course, that stat was inflated by last Sunday when Utah outscored SC 32-12 in the first half on Sunday.
- In the second half Sunday Enfield benched all his starters and went with walk-on Chass Bryan at the point. Bryan, who played a season-high 14 minutes after only playing twice in the first eight conference games, brought energy and defensive intensity. He also scored his first three points of the season. "Chass always gives great energy," Enfield said. "He comes every day in practice and plays like that -- plays hard."
- Bryan is one of three juniors on the SC roster, which contains no seniors.
- Six of the 14 players on USC's roster never played for USC prior to this season. Five of the eight players with experience playing for USC entering this season, had played just one season for the Trojans.
- One hundred and one of the 181 games played by USC in the last six seasons have been decided by 10 points or fewer (55.8 percent). Also, 38 of the 105 losses have been decided by six points or fewer or in overtime (36.2 percent).