#7 USC Preview 2017-18

- Matt Cox

Key Returners: Everyone
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Charles O'Bannon, Derryck Thornton (Duke transfer), Jordan Usher, Victor Uyaelunmo


Postseason Projection: 2 - 3 seed

Outlook: After officially putting Florida Gulf Coast on the map back in 2013, Andy Enfield has flown somewhat under the radar since arriving at his new home in Los Angeles.  Over the past four seasons, his USC teams have shown slow but steady improvement year over year, which culminated in back-to-back wins over Providence and SMU in the NCAA tournament last March.  With the Trojans' top-8 scorers returning for the 2017-18 campaign, in addition to two stud freshmen and an ex-5 star recruit/Duke transfer (Derryck Thornton), this might be the year Enfield reenters the national spotlight - only this time as a legitimate title contender.

Before we run through the laundry list of multi-talented pieces littered across the roster, let's start with the undisputed leaders of this year's Trojan squad: seniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. McLaughlin and Stewart were the cornerstones of Enfield's first recruiting class at USC and have been paramount to the revitalization of USC basketball, which was a sub-500 Pac-12 afterthought when they first arrived on campus. Both have grown tremendously since their erratic freshman seasons and are now models of efficiency on the offensive end of the floor. McLaughlin has transformed from a one-dimensional driver with a broken jump-shot into a complete, well-rounded point guard/floor general and has become the Trojans' go-to playmaker in crunch time. Stewart also struggled in his early days, but has been lights out from beyond the arc over the past two seasons, connecting on 39% and 43% from downtown in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively. He's become a frequent beneficiary of McLaughlin's penetrate and kick action as their chemistry continues to improve with more time on the court together. 

Now entering their final years in a USC uniform, McLaughlin and Stewart will have a plethora of weapons surrounding them on the floor at all times. Jonah Mathews - younger brother of Gonzaga's Jordan Mathews - emerged as a major bright spot for the Trojans last year. An ex-top 100 recruit from just down the road in Santa Monica, Mathews was touted as a dynamic scorer with a silky smooth jumper coming into USC. And while he dealt with some freshman growing pains on the offensive end, his development into a two-way player is what got him major run in his first full collegiate season. Enfield had the following comments on Mathews in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News last December...

“He’s earned his minutes defensively” . “He’s our best on-the-ball defender. He’s very active.”

That's certainly high praise for Mr. Mathews, but the advanced stat nerds would nominate his teammate De'Anthony Melton - the other gem of the 2016-17 freshman class - for the "top defender" award.

Melton posted the highest individual defensive rating on USC last year and led the Trojans in both blocks and steals on a per minute basis.  The term "Swiss Army Knife" gets thrown out a lot when describing players, but Melton is actually worthy of that characterization.  Not only was he a menace on the defensive end of the floor, he also dished out 5 assists per 40 minutes, giving Enfield yet another capable playmaker alongside McLaughlin. The fact that Melton has openly admitted to modeling his game after the Boston Celtics' Avery Bradley is indicative of his uncanny role awareness, which makes him the perfect ingredient for a team that's already loaded with scoring options.

De'Anthony Melton skies to send away a reverse layup by Arizona's Kobi Simmons

What's scary is that the Trojans' forward depth may actually be more crowded than the backcourt unit. Enfield and his staff snagged two 4-star recruits in Charles O'Bannon and Jordan Usher - both would play significant minutes for just about every other school in the country this season, but will have to fight and claw to earn major minutes on this team.  Rising junior Shaqquan Aaron appeared to be a promising transfer acquisition from Louisville this time last year, but saw his role diminished down the stretch, particularly over the last 4 games of the season in which he tallied a grand total of zero points (yikes). This disappearing act is why many were scratching their heads after Aaron announced early this offseason that he would test the NBA waters, before ultimately deciding to return to school.  

Bennie Boatwright is probably USC's most versatile scoring threat. Boatright is a mesh between a wing and a stretch-4 and at 6'10, his pure jumper and competent handle make him a mismatch nightmare for opposing forwards. However, Boatwright has yet to show he can be an effective post defender or reliable two-way rebounder during his first two seasons as a Trojan. Chimezi Metu will once again anchor the middle of Enfield's patented 2-3 zone, but will need Boatwright and others to contribute in the glass cleaning and rim protecting departments, both of which have been glaring deficiencies over the past three seasons.

A major trend to follow this year is how Enfield decides to balance his defensive schemes between man-to-man and zone. According to Synergy data, the Trojans featured zone on 33% of their defensive possessions last season, the most since Enfield arrived at USC back in 2014. Boatwright's absence for a good chunk of conference play forced Enfield to showcase the zone more often with the intention of keeping Metu out of foul trouble. But now with Boatwright fully healthy, along with a year of development under Nick Rakocevic's belt and the arrival of a shot-blocking specialist in freshman Victor Uyaelunmo, don't be surprised if Enfield leans more on straight-up, man-to-man and de-prioritizes zone.

Bottom Line: No coach will sympathize with the "first world problems" facing Andy Enfield this season - that is, how to juggle a roster that is loaded with depth at all five positions. With some other traditionally strong programs in the "Conference of Champions" likely to take a minor step back this season (specifically UCLA & Oregon), USC and Arizona will become the hunted in the Pac-12.  Whether or not Enfield and his group respond to the lofty expectations will be determined by their ability to consistently get stops.  Per kenpom.com, USC has ranked outside the top-80 in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past four seasons.  If the talented Trojans can clamp down on the defensive end, the offensive firepower should take care of the rest.