Summer in Southern California normally means one thing: USC football is right around the corner. Fresh off a Rose Bowl victory, Heisman-hopeful quarterback Sam Darnold stayed healthy while his sophomore coach, Clay Helton, welcomed a highly ranked recruiting class.
Normally, that is enough to satiate Trojan fans’ title-thirsty anticipation. Yet for one sunshiny week at the end of June, another program shared the limelight.
From June 26 through July 2, the men’s basketball team received three commitments from four-star recruits: forward J’Raan Brooks, guard Kevin Porter and forward Taeshon Cherry (who some scouts list as five-star). At the time, the trio gave the Trojans the top 2018 recruiting class per 247sports.com. Only last week did conference rival Arizona edge USC out, when five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly committed to the Wildcats.
With their rapid growth, the Trojans have a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four as early as this season — a sentence that may still sound far-fetched to many USC fans. But it’s true: Head coach Andy Enfield’s squad figures to be a preseason top-15 team, and last year’s entire rotation will return.
The Trojans also welcome a top-30 recruiting class led by two four-star shooting guards: Jordan Usher from Marietta, Ga., and Las Vegas native Charles O’Bannon, Jr., whose father started at power forward on UCLA’s 1995 NCAA Championship team. Seven-foot center Victor Uyaelunmo, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., rounds out the class of freshmen.
But the newcomer most likely to contribute immediately is Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, now eligible after sitting out last season. Thornton was the top-ranked transfer in 2016 after starting 22 games at point guard for a Final Four Blue Devils team loaded with talented stars such as guard Grayson Allen and forward Brandon Ingram.
USC could form a superteam of its own this season pending a final recruiting twist. The top prospect in the class of 2018, power forward Marvin Bagley III, has petitioned the NCAA to reclassify for this year. Although Bagley would forgo his senior year in high school and the extra year of development that comes with it, scouts still consider him a potential No. 1 draft pick next year. He has listed USC and Duke as his top two colleges ahead of powerhouses Arizona, Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky. If all goes smoothly, he could dawn a Trojan uniform as early as this fall. If not, Enfield will hope at minimum Bagley does not choose a Pac-12 rival.
But the Trojans want him badly. According to Sports Illustrated, Enfield has not only offered a scholarship to Bagley, but also to his sophomore brother, Marcus, plus their 7-year-old brother, Marlay.
USC has already filled all 13 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year, but someone could be on the move whether or not Bagley arrives. With Usher, O’Bannon and Thornton in the fold, the roster is flush with guards. The list goes on: returning senior captain Jordan McLaughlin, senior Elijah Stewart, sophomores De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews and redshirt sophomore Shaqquan Aaron.
Enfield could choose any number of rotations from this group, but the depth at his disposal could be a blessing and a curse. Only three of these players can start as long as junior forwards (and NBA Draft prospects) Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright stay healthy. The rest will be strapped for minutes. At least one player — likely more — is bound to be unhappy. Someone could transfer before the season begins. If not, maintaining chemistry may be challenging even if the team is winning at a program-record pace.
Enfield faced the opposite problem last season. During some rough stretches, it appeared they could barely field a starting five. McLaughlin and Metu, the Pac-12 Most Improved Player, were the only consistent contributors. Stewart and Aaron showed flashes of brilliance but then disappeared for weeks. Aaron, the Louisville transfer, even won Pac-12 Player of the Week in late January when his 23-point performance led the Trojans to a stunning upset over No. 8 UCLA at the Galen Center. Throughout the rest of the season, however, he scored in double digits just twice; and in three NCAA Tournament games, he did not score in 23 minutes of play.
While USC is rich at guard, it enjoys less depth at forward. Behind Boatwright and Metu stands a giant question mark as sophomores Nick Rakocevic and Harrison Henderson and
three-star recruit Victor Uyaelunmo complete the roster. Should either starter get hurt, Enfield must either play small or trust one of these three to shoulder the remaining weight.
Last year when Boatwright missed 17 games, Rakocevic received plenty of playing time. While he impressed at times, he also floundered when matched-up against first-round NBA draft picks such as Ivan Rabb and Lauri Markkanen. Meanwhile, Henderson played just 50 minutes the entire season, and Uyaelunmo awaits his collegiate debut.
Despite USC’s depth dichotomy, the program’s recent recruiting prowess has given Enfield a significant boost. Just last summer, the verdict was still out after his best players and earliest recruits, Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, forwent their senior year for the draft only to fail to make NBA rosters. Consequently, most experts tempered expectations for the Trojans and essentially adopted the mantra “What Could Have Been?”
After being mere minutes away from the Sweet Sixteen last season, the sky is the limit for the Enfield era. For the first time in his five-year tenure, Enfield has established senior leaders in McLaughlin and Stewart, and he will not have to rely on a host of freshmen starters. If likely draft picks Boatwright and Metu stay healthy, the Trojans could conceivably win their first conference title since 2009 — and
maybe play basketball into April.
But even in the case of Murphy’s Law — if injuries strike, Boatwright and Metu forgo their senior seasons and Bagley chooses UCLA — USC still looks set to compete for the foreseeable future. It is only a matter of time before Trojan fans start dividing their summers evenly between football and basketball recruiting.