Men’s basketball looks to continue strong conference start

Senior forward and captain Bennie Boatwright embraces his teammates before facing Long Beach State Nov. 28 at Galen Center. (Josh Dunst/Daily Trojan)

After successfully protecting home court against Cal and Stanford, the men’s basketball team will venture north for its first away game of conference play. Despite various injuries sustained by key players, head coach Andy Enfield has the Trojans sitting at 2-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time in his six-year tenure.

“We’ve just pushed together this whole preseason, out-of-conference and these last two games,” Enfield said. “We don’t know who’s going to be healthy on a game-to-game basis or even a half-to-half basis, so we’re very excited to be 2-0.”

Injuries have sidelined the highly touted freshman guard duo of Kevin Porter Jr. and Elijah Weaver, as the two have only appeared in the same game once all season. Nevertheless, the Trojan upperclassmen have been able to carry the weight early in conference play.

Redshirt junior point guard Derryck Thornton has been running the Trojan offense and setting the tone on defense for all but four of the 80 minutes of Pac-12 play thus far. He is currently the second best passer in the conference at 5.4 nightly assists.

A lot of those assists have been going to the skilled big man pairing of senior forward Bennie Boatwright and junior forward Nick Rakocevic. Altogether accounting for 91 of the 159 points scored in conference play, Boatwright and Rakocevic have combined for well over half the team’s scoring production and are proving to be an impressive one-two punch duo.

“It’s very easy to play with a guy, [Boatwright], who is capable of doing so many different things,” Rakocevic said.

Playing alongside a versatile player like Boatwright has created multiple high-low opportunities for Rakocevic, and the 6-foot-11 forward has been taking advantage of those good looks down low. After a week of career highs, Rakocevic was honored as the Pac-12 Player of the Week, making him the first Trojan to take home the honor this season.

Seeing as Oregon State has lost just one true home game all season and is coming off an emotional 77-72 away victory over rival Oregon, the duo will have to come in full offensive force for the Trojans to notch their third straight victory in the Gill Coliseum. Another element that Enfield and Co. will have to strengthen is their recent defensive toughness.

“[To win in the Pac-12] you have to make plays and defend,” Enfield said.

Since giving up 102 points in an upset to a West Coast Conference Santa Clara team, the Trojans have held opponents to under 70 points in three of their last four games.

The recent success of Enfield alternating between a high pressuring 2-3 zone defense and a conventional man-to-man defense will have to carry over for USC to stop the current Pac-12 scoring leader in redshirt junior forward Tres Tinkle. At 20.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, the 6-foot-8 forward does it all for Oregon State. After missing two seasons due to a broken foot and wrist, Tinkle has been dominating opponents all season with routine 20-point outings.

It will be interesting to see how Tinkle matches up against the long reaches of 6-foot-7 junior guard Shaqquan Aaron and 6-foot-10 Boatwright. Despite the impressive potential matchups on the wings, the most important battle within a battle will be which backcourt can dictate the game’s outcome.

The upperclassmen backcourt of Thornton and junior Jonah Mathews will have to square off against the Thompson brothers of Oregon State: Senior guard Stephen Thompson Jr. and sophomore guard Ethan Thompson have scored or assisted on over 60 percent of the Beavers’ points.  

The Trojans will square off against Oregon State at Gill Coliseum at 8 p.m. Thursday.