The USC men’s basketball program has developed a reputation for consistently possessing one of the youngest rosters in the Pac-12 Conference, and the 2016 season will be no different. This season, nine of the roster’s 14 players are underclassmen in eligibility — the team only boasts one senior who is on scholarship.
USC’s youth was a strong point in the team’s perfect opening weekend, which included victories over visiting Montana and Omaha at the Galen Center. Trojan underclassmen have accounted for approximately 60 percent of the team’s offensive output through the first two games — scoring 93 of USC’s 157 points thus far.
In USC’s 82-72 victory over Omaha Sunday, redshirt sophomore guard Shaqquan Aaron, a transfer from Louisville, scored a team-high 16 points and reeled in four rebounds.
“Shaqquan is in a situation now where he is being relied upon for the first time in his career,” Enfield said regarding Aaron, who sat out the entirety of last season after transferring from Louisville. “He is being relied upon to do things he has never done before — defend at a high level, rebound the ball, score and help our team win games.”
Aaron also recorded a career-high 17 points in USC’s season-opening 75-61 victory over Montana Friday.
Sophomore forward Chimezie Metu recorded his first double-double of the season Sunday against Omaha (15 points, 11 rebounds). Metu also recorded a game-high five blocks on Sunday. A breakaway dunk from Metu late in the second half against Omaha was a nail-in-the-coffin play which helped clinch the victory for the Trojans.
In the opening weekend of their collegiate careers, freshman guards Jonah Mathews, De’Anthony Melton and forward Nick Rakocevic saw significant playing time against both Montana and Omaha.
Melton — who scored 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting Sunday — was one of five double-digit scorers for USC in its victory against Omaha. Melton also recorded a game-high three steals on Sunday.
“I want to get as many deflections as possible on defense,” Melton said. “I just want to limit their [opponent’s] number of possessions and increase the number of ours.”
Rakocevic scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds against Omaha; his free throw made in the second half put USC ahead 54-53, giving the team a lead they would not surrender for the remainder of the contest.
Mathews scored four points against Omaha Sunday, and recorded the first field goal of his collegiate career.
PASSING OF THE GUARD
When former USC guard Julian Jacobs declared for the NBA Draft last spring, ending his career as a Trojan a year early, there were great doubts about the future of the backcourt for the team.
Through the first two games, the trio of Aaron and juniors Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin has filled in well for the team at the guard slots.
On Friday night against Montana, Stewart scored a game-high 30 points against the Grizzlies on 6-of-12 shooting from the field; he also reeled in seven rebounds.
“I didn’t have to take that many shots tonight because I got to the free throw line a lot,” said Stewart, regarding his performance Friday night. “I’ve been trying to work on my efficiency, especially having so many options in this offense.”
On Sunday, Stewart scored 11 points, while recording four assists and seven rebounds.
McLaughlin, who led USC in scoring last season (13.4 PPG), scored 12 points on Sunday and recorded a team-high five assists.
Through the first two games of the season, Aaron has averaged 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.
SURPASSING THE SLOW START
On Friday night against Montana, USC overcame a slow start that put it behind double digits against the Grizzlies early on in the second half. After falling behind 14-3, the Trojans finished the half on a 31-16 run that gave them the lead entering the half en route to a double-digit victory.
Against Omaha Sunday, USC trailed the Mavericks 37-34 at the half. In the second half, USC outscored Omaha 48-35 and outrebounded the Mavericks, 28-19, in its come-from-behind victory.
As a freshman last season, Metu undertook a significant role for a USC team that appeared in the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2011. In his first year, Metu had a team-high 54 blocks, while averaging 6.4 PPG and 3.8 RPG off of the bench.
Issues with foul trouble limited Metu to an average of 18.5 minutes per game played during his freshman season.
Enfield notes that Metu has worked on this aspect of his game — limiting the fouls that come with his block-happy style of play.
Metu has also made efforts toward diversifying his offensive skill set, especially developing his abilities as a mid-range shooter. Last season, Metu was a 51 percent shooter from the free throw line. Through two games, Metu has shown early signs of improving his foul shots, shooting 9-of-11 from the stripe thus far.
“I worked out a lot this summer, making sure I’m able to knock down [mid-range shots] effectively,” Metu said. “It’s helped my game a lot. Now I can pump-fake, drive to the rim, and get fouled. I’m shooting a lot more free throws these first two games than I did all last season … It’s all helped me open up my game.”