Anthony on LA: This is the year for men’s basketball to win the Pac-12

As the seconds ticked away into the New Year, people hoped 2022 would be different than the last two years. 

Six days in and it was just like any other — No. 5 men’s basketball looked like a threat as they beat UC Berkeley on the road in its first game in 19 days due to a coronavirus pause. 

The first game of 2022 played out like others in the latter half of 2021:

Junior forward Isaiah Mobley splashing 3-pointers, senior guard Drew Peterson hitting one-legged midrange fadeaways, redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin bruising opposing centers with hook shots and Head Coach Andy Enfield leaving happy.

USC looked vulnerable in its loss on the road against Stanford. But, the Trojans missed double digit free throws, practically shooting themselves in the foot. There’s no need to panic since it’s mid-January and USC was not going to go undefeated. However, there’s still lots of promise. 

This is the year the Trojans will win the Pac-12 and make some noise in a conference that often overlooks them. 

USC is good — really good. Good enough to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 1984-1985, good enough to make another deep run in March Madness and good enough to create some buzz at this Lincoln Riley-infused football school. 

What makes the Trojans scary this season is the winning combination in college basketball — depth and experience. It sounds pretty simple, but in the one-and-done nature of college basketball, now, it’s a rarity. 

Last year’s National Champion Baylor, for example, was led by a trio of upperclassmen in Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Jared Butler. Three of the top four scorers for 2019 National Champions Virginia were upperclassmen too.

USC had six returning rotation players from last year’s Elite Eight team: Mobley, Peterson, Goodwin, junior guard Ethan Anderson, junior forward Max Agbonkpolo and redshirt senior guard Isaiah White. 

Their chemistry is evident on the court, especially on the defensive side which is an amalgamation of talent and understanding defensive schemes. The length of these players sets up a defense that looks like an octopus with hands in every single passing lane. 

The six returnees have played in Enfield’s system for at least two seasons, they know what it takes and it shows. As of Sunday, the Trojans hold opponents to the third-fewest field goal percentage per game — 35.5%. The next closest Pac-12 team is Washington State at 47.  

That depth is evident on offense too. Four players are averaging double digit points, with any starter having the potential to dominate a game. 

The main difference between this side and last year’s Elite Eight run is, obviously, no Evan Mobley. The Pac-12 Player of the Year isn’t an easy player to replace, but the development of last year’s supporting cast has made it easy. 

The improvement of Peterson and Goodwin has been enormous for this team. 

Peterson’s become a midrange maestro and a capable playmaker who can rebound the ball strong, then push it down the floor. He’s averaging 11.1 points per game on nearly 50% shooting from the field, an increase from 9.8 on 42.4% shooting last year. He also carries a sense of swag and confidence with him on the court, almost like he knows he’s going to score, and you can’t really do much about it.

Goodwin has seen the biggest jump since last year. He’s more than doubled his point average from 5.6 to 13.1 on a ridiculous 64.3% shooting per game. He’s finishing strong in the paint again, but his offensive game has expanded with less reliance on putback layups and more versatility with dribble drives toward the basket. 

Even Mobley has improved too, becoming an outstanding all-around player who does everything for this team. He’s currently shooting 44% from three which is absurd for someone nearly 7-feet tall.

You add electric transfer guard Boogie Ellis to these returning players, and it’s no surprise that USC is undefeated. Ellis gets a lot of attention from defenses because of his three-level scoring ability and microwave offensive prowess. It’s a blessing in disguise since the Trojans’ depth makes focusing a defense on Ellis a disadvantage for the opponent.

But, no team is perfect, and USC is far from it. A free-throw percentage of 60% as a team is pretty comical, and it cost them against the Cardinal Tuesday. Scoring droughts are also becoming a commonality. You can’t win games if you go more than five minutes without a basket.  

The Trojans can make it happen this year. The depth is on display, the chemistry is off the charts and the coaching of Enfield is among the ten best in the country. 

No statement win has come yet, even though strong road wins against Washington State and California in the midst of a long home win streak are pretty close. Some might say there needs to be more done, but I’ve seen enough.

USC is winning the Pac-12.

​​Anthony Gharib is a junior writing about all things Los Angeles sports. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan.