After two consecutive finishes at the bottom of the Pac-12, the USC men’s basketball program is expected to improve this year with its young core returning intact. The Trojans are looking to establish a culture under head coach Andy Enfield but have so far failed to put it all together.
The Trojans will be led by junior forward Nikola Jovanovic and junior guard Julian Jacobs, with major contributions from sophomore guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. The team also expects to see improvements from other players such as forward Malik Martin and guard Malik Marquetti, two sophomores who showed flashes of potential during their freshman seasons but were too inconsistent to keep regular playing time. Redshirt junior forward Darion Clark and redshirt junior guard Katin Reinhardt provided energy and shooting, respectively, and performed well both off the bench and as starters for the team.
Jacobs emerged as the leader of the group last season as a captain, especially once McLaughlin was lost for the season to injury in February. Jacobs’ vocal leadership will be crucial for the young team moving forward. The team is also hoping that McLaughlin can return and be an explosive point guard for the Trojans. Pairing McLaughlin with Jacobs will give the Trojans a formidable backcourt that can lead the team and take pressure off the other players.
McLaughlin’s return to health will be key for the Trojans. He can perform not just as a point guard who gets his own shot, but also as a player who can create opportunities for others. With McLaughlin as the established point and Jacobs as the leader of the team, the other players can also fall into more established roles. Stewart can develop into an athletic defensive stopper, Reinhardt into a true scorer, and Jovanovic as the go-to big.
“I think that along with being great ball players, having high- character guys in a program is just as important, if not more, to attaining success. That’s the direction this program is heading in,” Jacobs said. “This year you’ll see a more experienced team and one that doesn’t lack depth inside. We’re the exact same team as last year, just faster, stronger and can shoot better.”
Along with this returning core, the Trojans will welcome two freshmen who will give the team much needed depth in the front court. Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, a pair of 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11 forwards, respectively, will join the team next season. These two four-star players will not only help the Trojans on the court with their talent, but their merit will also help attract other high-profile recruits to a program trying to get back to its winning ways. Neither of these freshmen expects to be a star player right off the bat, however, and the Trojans should not expect to be drastically better right away.
Metu has also put in work outside of USC and recently put on a show at the Drew League. In one particular performance, he scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in one of the most impressive performances of the tournament. If Metu can consistently put up solid numbers like this at the collegiate level, he could become a go-to player for the Trojans and give the guards a weapon to throw the ball to in the middle.
The team is also adding a player to the roster who will not be eligible to play for another year. Ex-Louisville guard Shaqquan Aaron will be transferring to USC this season and will have three years of eligibility remaining after he sits out a season. Aaron was a top 50 recruit coming out of high school but failed to find minutes in the rotation at Louisville.
These additions might not turn around the program right away, but they will help build up the reputation of basketball at USC and bring in other talented players.
The Trojans will look to their most established players to set the tone early on.
“As far as my role, leading is what I’ll have to do best no matter what that entails,” Jacobs said. “This team is hungry from the first man to the last.”
The Trojans should see some improvement next season after another year with the core intact. The team continues to add talent, but it will take a while for a losing program to attract the type of talent that will allow the team compete with other top schools in the Pac-12. If USC is able to keep its core together for another year and continues to add talent through transfers and recruiting, the Trojans should be able to have something to cheer for in the near future.