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December 30, 2013

What's up for 2014 Trojans?

Andy Enfield "loves" his 9-4 Trojans team as it has a week now to get ready for the 2014, or Pac-12, portion of his first season at USC.

And he has some real reason to do so. Wins over Xavier, Dayton and Boston College, one at home, one on the road and one at a neutral site, give him some reason for hope.

He can even look at the worst loss of the season, that Byron Wesley-late-for-the-bus fiasco at Long Beach State where the late-starting Trojans gave up 50 first-half points in an ugly one-point loss, USC's "lone loss in the last seven games," Enfield says with a positive spn.

Without the discipline of removing Wesley from the starting lineup, he says, he doesn't think the Trojans could have gone to Dayton and won the next game. It's one way of looking at it.

Our thought might be that punishing the whole team with an extra loss might not have been the way to go. How about having Wesley run from USC to Long Beach State the next day and not taking a bad loss. Just a thought.

As much as we thought 9-4 would be a realistic prediction for USC's preseason record, 10-3 would have been a boost for these Trojans. Get just a split in the Pac-12 and 19-12 mark gives you a chance at a postseason selection.

And there are reasons to think that's possible. Wesley has become, in Enfield's words, "an efficient scorer" who can get into the lane and get the ball into the basket, as he did in a putting up a late-arriving 20 points in Sunday's second-half 82-60 romp over a 3-13 Howard team.

But that points out the one big negative of this team that is "getting better," Enfield says. It doesn't always show up to play right way. The steady Wesley and the streak-shooting J.T. Terrell, who has shown up again now after missing seven games with academic issues, agreed.

"The slow starts are something we have to work on," Wesley said after Sunday's game saw USC turn over the ball eight times in the first eight minutes on the way to a season-high 20 miscues. And that was against a Howard team not exactly able to defend them all that well but one that still managed to block seven shots against the unassertive Trojans.

So where exactly do these Trojans stand as they prepare for the Pac-12 opener Sunday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion? "A hostile atmosphere," Terrell says he'll tell his younger teammates to be ready for.

It's a tough start -- with both No. 1 Arizona and Arizona State coming to Galen at week's end to finish off "about as tough a schedule as you can get," Enfield said of the three-game intro to conference play.

"Our team is getting better, Enfield says, noting they've had "just one bad half" in the last two-and-a-half weeks. But 9-4 "is a really good record for us based on the toughness of our schedule. Sure, we could have won one or two more games but we also won some tough games. We have a chance to do some things in the Pac-12. We've really improved."

The senior Terrell seems to be one of those places, coming off the bench Sunday to hit his first seven shots (five from the field and two free throws) to give the stuck-in-place Trojans a much-needed offensive burst.

"We need J.T.," Enfield said, praising his shot selection.

"It feels great to be back," Terrell said, after scoring 18 points in 23 minutes against Howard. "I just happened to knock down open shots and my teammates got me the ball. I'm back now . . . back for good."

With senior Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard, after his play at Dayton, hitting a game-winning three at the buzzer in overtime to give USC the upset, and Julian Jacobs, the energetic freshman, USC has three talented, athletic perimeter players with good guard size to get them going.

Inside, in addition to Wesley, who was coming off a 26-point game at Dayton, USC looks like it can count on improving 6-foot-10 freshman Nikola Jovanovic, a player who is "steady," and "stronger" and despite his youth, "a player we can count on," Enfield says.

"We're seeing Nikola eveolve into a heck of a player," Enfield says. Now if only 7-2 center Omar Oraby only would do the same. He did manage 10 rebounds and two blocked shots but in 25 minutes, got off just four shots in a six-point outing.

Seven-foot transfer grad student D.J. Haley added another four points and two rebounds in his 15 minutes giving the position 10 points and 12 rebounds. An acceptable output although against the bigger. more talented Pac-12 front lines USC will see the first week, that sort of production will be a must.

But what must not happen the next three games are the energy-free starts. This team has to start coming out ready to play.

Right now, it looks as they're trying to remember what they're supposed to do and thinking instead of playing. As the game goes on, they do seem to get into it. But that's against teams like Howard, whose three wins were against the likes of Gwynedd-Mercy, Washington College and in two overtimes, Delaware State.

UCLA and Arizona they were not. And a slow start against these guys might not leave time for playing catchup.

Enfield admits he doesn't have the answer but it's "the age-old question -- how do you get a team ready to play." As an "old school guy," Enfield says he was "always ready to play." But "as a coach, you're always searching for new ways" to do that.

"My approach now is that it's on them: Go out and play."

But here's our add to that: "Go out and play -- right away."

Wait until halftime, as they did Sunday after a 29-26 start the first 20 minutes, and it will be way too late.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.


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