Should We Be Taking USC More Seriously?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 14th, 2016

When USC rallied to beat Texas A&M, it was good luck. When the Trojans squeaked past SMU a week later, it was thanks to Bennie Boatright. When they beat BYU a week after that, it was because the Cougars really aren’t that good and the game was in Los Angeles. These are all logical ways to rationalize dismissing USC’s hot start, but the fact remains that the Trojans are just one of six unbeaten teams remaining in Division I basketball and a group that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Pac-12 standings is rebuilding faster than anyone imagined. Of those six teams sporting flawless records, most smart basketball minds will tell you that Andy Enfield‘s team is easily the worst of the group. KenPom agrees. ESPN agrees. The Trojans are off to their best start in more than 40 years and barely included them in this week’s Top 25. The conventional wisdom is that, while USC’s early success deserves some attention, the Trojans still aren’t worth taking all that seriously yet.

USC Basketball is Soaring -- Has Anyone Noticed? (USA Today Images)

USC Basketball is Soaring — Has Anyone Noticed? (USA Today Images)

USC feels like a prime candidate for regression to the mean once the rigors of conference play begin. The Trojans own three resume-building wins by slim margins, but a non-conference slate that will include just one game outside California doesn’t impress anyone. Enfield’s roster is one of the 20 least experienced nationally and his best player is expected to be out of the lineup for at least another month. Still, there’s a lot to like in Troy. USC has used more than good fortune to remain unblemished for the first five weeks of the season. The steward of “Dunk City” has created a well-rounded, disciplined and deep group that is producing top 50 efficiency metrics on both ends of the floor, placing a particular importance on taking care of the basketball (top 15 nationally).

Sure, the Trojans don’t force a lot of turnovers and give up too many second chances on the offensive glass, but they make up for it by keeping their opponents off the free throw line (opponents’ FTA/FGA ratio is a conference-best 1-to-4) and forcing them into difficult jumpers (opponents’ eFG is 43.9%). Offensively, USC is not an elite shooting team like their counterparts in Westwood, but they do have a number of players who are capable of getting buckets (three starters sport Offensive Ratings over 120.0). They have also achieved all of this without the services of sophomore forward Boatright, who is expected to be back from injury at some point this season. It is also worth pointing out that Enfield isn’t building a scrappy underdog at USC.

The Trojans are one of the only teams in the Pac-12 that seems comfortable using an eight-man rotation. Between Jordan McLaughlinElijah StewartShaqquan Aaron and Chimezie Metu, the Trojans have size, athleticism and legitimate NBA potential across the board. Freshman De’Anthony Melton may already be the best perimeter defender in the conference; McLaughlin seemingly grows more efficient by the day; and Metu is one of the better shot-blockers in college basketball. This is a well-balanced club fully capable of competing with any team in the league, which is why it is so surprising that no one appears ready to anoint the Trojans as legitimate conference championship contenders.

With apologies to Missouri State, USC’s remaining non-conference schedule should be easily navigable to reach 12-0. That correspondingly means there won’t be any chances for the Trojans to make another nationally-interesting impression before beginning conference play in Corvallis on December 28. When Enfield takes his team on that two-game road trip through Oregon, there will still be plenty of room available on the USC bandwagon. Just remember that there was a lot more room on it when the season started.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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