Shaqquan Aaron planted and took flight, tomahawking the ball with his right hand and flushing it with authority. Before running back on defense, he flexed at his team’s bench and unleashed a mighty roar.
It would be understandable if this was a scream of pent-up frustration. The story for much of USC’s season opener — in front of a crowd of 2,502, the smallest for a season opener since 2006 — was a dysfunctional offense. But Aaron’s dunk one of two throwdowns for the redshirt senior guard during a solo 9-0 scoring run in the second half gave the Trojans the spark they needed to pull away from Robert Morris in the Trojans’ 83-62 victory.
“I just felt like it was time to give my team a boost,” said Aaron, who led the team with 20 points. “It wasn’t just me. We all bought in together and locked down on defense, which led to offense.”
Aaron’s mini-explosion was part of a 21-5 run the Trojans used to take control in the second half. After being unable to receive good looks for much of the first half, USC found its way to the rim over and over again as the second frame progressed.
Once they had some easy looks at the rim, the ball seemed to move much quicker and their outside shots began to fall; the Trojans had 11 assists in the second half and shot 60.7 percent from the field, including six makes on nine attempts from long range.
But it was striking that they needed a run at all. USC was down 53-49 with just over 12 minutes left, due mostly to a stagnant offense. The team had almost as many turnovers (11) as field goals made (13) in the first half and struggled to make shots at the rim despite their size and talent advantage.
USC’s perimeter players seemed rusty, possibly feeling the effects of many preseason injuries that kept the team from practicing much as a whole. The Trojans fumbled the ball around off the dribble and on passes, allowing Robert Morris to score 9 first-half points off turnovers.
“First game, some of those guys were a little nervous and wanted to prove some things,” head coach Andy Enfield said of the team’s disjointed first half. “They just needed to settle down.”
The Trojan defense wasn’t particularly inspiring, either. Although USC maintained a small lead for most of the half, Robert Morris temporarily took control with a 16-4 run in the middle of the frame.
The Colonials targeted USC’s big man junior forward Nick Rakocevic during this stretch, using USC’s switch-happy defensive scheme to put him into actions that gave his quicker matchup space to shoot or attack off the dribble. Their ball movement also sliced up the press and zone the Trojans occasionally went to.
Rakocevic made his presence known in the second half, however; he began to dominate the interior, grabbing defensive rebounds en route to 16 total boards on the night. His 18 points only trailed Aaron for highest on the team.
“I’ll do that every game if I have to,” Rakocevic said of his work on the glass. “Offensive rebounding has kind of been my thing since freshman year, so I wanted to stick to that.”
The whole team might have needed some time to find its groove. The careless ball-handling, poor shot selection and slow-footed defense of the first half was replaced by energetic ball movement and stifling athleticism in the second.
“We made some adjustments defensively, how we guarded ball screens,” Enfield said. “We finally rebounded the ball, and then we went down and shared the basketball. It’s a fun style to play when you can run, spread the floor and make the extra pass.”
Freshman guard Kevin Porter was also impressive in his debut, totaling 15 points, five rebounds and a number of highlight plays. His alley-oop slam gave the crowd a taste of his game-changing athleticism, and he showcased his shot-making ability with a tough stepback three in the second half, although he picked up a technical for taunting afterward.
“He just needs to [be] more controlled, act like you’ve been there, done that before,” Enfield said.
This USC team clearly has talent. Multiple players stepped up when needed, and senior forward Bennie Boatwright, heralded freshmen guard Elijah Weaver and forward J’Raan Brooks did not play due to injury. But last year’s team was talented, and they disappointed as a top-15 team in the preseason.
The Trojans need to avoid stagnancy and apathy and play like they did in the second half more consistently, or they will fall below expectations for the second straight year.