After 30 games over four months, men’s basketball kisses goodnight to the regular season tomorrow afternoon at the Galen Center when they face the Washington Huskies (9-20, 2-15). The game is vital for the Trojans and inconsequential for the down-and-out Huskies. USC (22-8, 9-8) must win to finish above .500 in conference play for the first time in head coach Enfield’s four seasons. A loss puts their chances of postseason play at risk.
For Washington, a win or loss only matters with regard to star freshman guard Markelle Fultz. Fultz is projected by most to become the first pick in June’s NBA Draft despite playing for one of the worst teams in the Pac-12. He leads the conference in scoring with 23.2 points per game. He also averages 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. But Fultz is currently nursing a knee injury and might not even suit up on Saturday.
If he does, USC will aim to stop Fultz with their freshman standout, De’Anthony Melton. Other than Fultz, Melton is the only Pac-12 freshman to rank among the top-five Pac-12 freshmen in rebounding (fifth), steals (second), blocks (fourth) and assists (fifth).
Melton is not fazed by praiseworthy headlines swirling around the basketball world about Fultz and other freshman prodigies like Lonzo Ball.
“I just try to focus on myself and make sure I’m getting better mentally and physically,” Melton said. “By focusing on myself, I can lock-in [during games].”
Enfield had high praise for Melton.
“He’s the best guard-rebounder on our team and leads in steals,” Enfield said. “We need his secondary ball-handling on the court.”
Melton kept his starting job through USC’s winless streak, but junior Elijah Stewart came off the bench on Wednesday night for the first time since his sophomore season.
“Our rotation changed when Bennie came back,” Stewart said on Tuesday. “People who were playing a lot are starting to have to share minutes with another person. Any basketball player is a competitor, but we’re all friends with the same goals.”
It is uncertain whether redshirt sophomore Shaqquan Aaron will continue to start in Steweart’s place on Saturday. Enfield’s altered tactic worked effectively against Washington State, as the Trojans jumped out to an early and insurmountable lead. Aaron played 26 minutes and scored 8 points. Stewart played a season-low 17 and scored six. Both will have to contribute for USC to make a run in March.
So will McLaughlin, who enjoyed a career-best game against Washington State: The junior guard had a
game-high 17 points and 10 assists, finishing one rebound shy of the second triple-double in program history. He will look to stay hot against Washington.
Oddly, while this game marks the end of the regular season, it could kick off a double-header between the two teams. With a win, USC will finish either fifth or sixth in the Pac-12 (depending on Utah and Cal’s results this weekend), and with a loss, Washington will be 11th, meaning the Trojans and Huskies could face off again soon, in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament next Wednesday.
“[The game] should be fun,” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to go out and compete, hopefully like we did [Wednesday night] against Washington State. It was one of our better games this year, all around. Hopefully we’ll do the same again.”