COLUMN: USC men’s basketball must keep growing to compete

USC’s loss on Saturday night to Oregon perfectly captures the current state of the men’s basketball program. The Trojans have climbed their way out of the conference basement cellar and are now entrenched as a respectable upper-tier — but not yet elite — team in the Pac-12.

Saturday night proved this as the Trojans went toe-to-toe with Oregon for about 35 minutes of the game before turnovers, poor shooting and a lack of physical play underneath ultimately doomed them.

This performance was significantly more impressive than the clunker the Trojans turned in at Matthew Knight Arena to close out 2016, but it still showed the Trojans have some work left to do to advance to the upper echelon of the conference and cement themselves as a top-20 national program.

This certainly should not be taken as a complaint with head coach Andy Enfield’s work thus far.

Except for a few strong years under Tim Floyd, this is the best the USC program has been over the last decade and a half. Enfield has consistently improved the team, stockpiling talent each year and making incremental improvements to solidify USC as an NCAA tournament team.

As someone who remembers a painfully empty Galen Center during a way-too-close-for-comfort win against Northern Arizona in Enfield’s inaugural season, the last season and a half have been incredible to watch.

Now, it is about taking the next step forward and consistently competing with Oregon, UCLA and Arizona — and figuring out a way to beat Utah as well.

Saturday was a game where, despite brief spurts, the Trojans went cold from beyond the arc.

While this is surmountable in games against inferior opponents, the Trojans as they are currently constructed need hot shooting to win games against elite opponents.

So far in their marquee matchups, USC has only come out firing on all cylinders once, which was in their win against UCLA. Otherwise, the Trojans don’t have a fluid enough half-court offense to create points like a disciplined Virginia or Wisconsin team might.

Enfield is spot on in his vision to build a winning program outside of the one and done model that only works if you have a strong basketball brand or visionary coach. Outside of Duke and Kentucky, no one else can seem to make that work. The best way to compete for every other team, the Trojans included, is to recruit talented players, who won’t leave after their first season, and develop them to fit a multitude of systems.

The Trojans are reaping the rewards of this process with the development of juniors Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin as well as sophomore Chimezie Metu, and, to a lesser extent because of limited playing time, Bennie Boatwright. These players were highly touted recruits in the Los Angeles area, and by closing in on them Enfield built the foundation of the program.

This same model appears to be paying dividends with freshmen De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Matthews as well, who both appear to have extremely bright futures.

The Trojans have this foundation, but they are missing two elements that would crystallize Enfield’s vision and lead to closer games against opponents like Oregon and Arizona. The Trojans need a strong, sturdy low post presence and more consistent shooters.

When redshirt sophomore guard Shaqquan Aaron and Stewart are making shots from deep, the Trojans are practically unbeatable. In general, it seems when Aaron is on, the Trojans are one of the best teams in the country. However, while Aaron is certainly an excellent talent, he is not a knockdown shooter, and neither is Stewart. In order to win consistently in big games, USC needs to find one or two more guys like Boatwright and Matthews, who have strong fundamentals and a fluid stroke.

Looking across town, it is clear that the ability to space the floor has helped UCLA immensely.

When a team has four to six players who shoot it exceptionally well from 3-point territory, it is highly unlikely they will all go cold in the same game.

The second thing the Trojans need is a bruiser. The Trojans were hurt by the loss of Nikola Jovanovic, who might have played this role, but even he struggled against physical big men inside. Without shooting, the Trojans offense goes stagnant, which is exacerbated when talented brutes like Oregon’s Jordan Bell dominate the glass on both the offensive and defensive end. This has been the Trojans’ undoing against Utah and Arizona, and if the team isn’t hitting 3-point shots and getting out in transition, they struggle to win because of this lack of frontcourt strength.

The Trojans can work on both of these elements moving forward. The team has been extremely dependable this season, winning all the games it should. The next step in turning the Trojans into the elite program they have the potential to be is finding shooters and a big man, and going toe to toe against teams like Oregon in every matchup.

Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,”  runs Mondays.