Men’s basketball enters year with high rank, expectations

The No. 10 Trojans are considered among the most seasoned units in the country. Photo by Brian Chin | Daily Trojan

The USC men’s basketball team is back in action on Friday against Cal State Fullerton with a historic No. 10 ranking in the AP poll and high expectations.

After reaching its second straight NCAA tournament last season, the veteran Trojan squad is anticipated to challenge No. 3 Arizona this year in a conference that lost a majority of its talent to the NBA — despite the fact that Trojan assistant coach Tony Bland was charged with bribery and wire fraud and is the subject of an internal investigation.

But for fifth-year head coach Andy Enfield, preseason rankings aren’t nearly as important as the final results.

“It’s quite an accomplishment for our players,” Enfield said. “We’re excited about the possibilities we’re having this year. However, preseason rankings are just that — it’s preseason.”

Many credit USC’s jump in the poll to a loaded roster that returns all of last season’s starters and also brings in a very talented freshman class. But until the team takes to the court, it’s simply speculation.

“We have to go prove ourselves — we don’t take anything for granted,” Enfield said. “We have a very challenging out-of-conference schedule, and the Pac-12 is as good as it’s ever has been. We know, because we’re ranked, that teams are going to knock us down. We have to get better and not be focused on the end result.”

Of the newcomers, redshirt sophomore guard Derryck Thornton, who sat out last season after transferring from Duke, is expected to be a huge factor off the bench in 2017 after earning starting minutes as a Blue Devil. After a long wait, he’s excited to finally introduce himself at USC.

“It feels unreal,” Thornton said. “It feels so good to get back out there. I’m so excited to get out there and compete. That Duke team accomplished a lot of good things, but I’m in a new chapter of my life with a new group of guys and coaching staff. The past is the past, and I’m ready to move on, and make the most for this program.”

Along with Thornton, the Trojans also welcome three freshmen to the roster this season: guard Chuck O’Bannon, forward Victor Oyaelunmo and wing Jordan Usher.

After being named a team captain this offseason, junior forward Chimezie Metu feels pressure to set an example for his younger teammates.

“Even though I don’t think of myself as a leader, the guys on my team think it, so I have to step up,” Metu said. “I’m trying to be there for my guys when they’re down or go into slumps. I know I’m not the perfect person, but I know if I can help guys when they’re down and help them up that it will be a huge boost for us.”

This offseason, the team has struggled to clean up its defensive miscues during preseason scrimmages.

Senior shooting guard Elijah Stewart, a co-captain alongside Metu and senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, emphasized that stopping opposing offenses will be just as important as scoring buckets.

“The pieces are there,” Stewart said. “We just have to know how to put them together, especially mingling freshmen into the lineup. Defensively, we have to start trusting each other a little bit more. Defense is something that we’re really going for this year because the way that we play: We have to get stops, get rebounds and run out.”

Friday’s home opener against Cal State Fullerton will be a stiff defensive test to kick off USC’s season. The Titans bring back top scorers Kyle Allman, Jr., Jackson Rowe and Khalil Ahmad to a talented roster that put up more than 100 points in a 112-57 exhibition romp over La Verne last Saturday.

McLaughlin is excited for the challenge and said he is fired up for this season and another run at an NCAA championship.

“I’m super hungry for a national title,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been making sure I stay healthy, that everybody else stays healthy. We’re competing at a high level, and everybody’s so talented on this team. Everybody’s fighting for minutes. It’s good for the team that we’re competing at a high level because come March, everybody’s going to be competing at a high level.”

The Trojans tip off their season against the Titans Friday at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center.