Nick Rakocevic showed what he can be for Trojans in starring role Tuesday
USC basketball coach Andy Enfield has often been blunt and candid when discussing forward Nick Rakocevic, but the stat-stuffing senior takes it in stride.
"He's my biggest fan when I play to my strengths and do things like this, so you see the result," Rakocevic said Tuesday night.
Indeed, Enfield just wants to see more of this version of Rakocevic -- the one who can put the Trojans on his back and score 27 points with 16 rebounds in a 84-66 win over South Dakota State.
Rakocevic and fellow senior Jonah Mathews, who scored 14 points, each reached the 1,000-career-points milestone in the victory, while freshman Onyeka Okongwu was the only other USC scorer in double figures with 12 points and 8 rebounds.
The clash between the Trojans (3-0) and successful mid-major Jackrabbits (3-1) inside the Galen Center was actually rather tight midway through the second half as USC clung to a 59-56 lead.
Rakocevic then grabbed an offensive rebound and got to the line to hit one of two free throws. On the Trojans' next possession, he drew another foul and hit both ends of a one-and-one and overall he'd score 10 of the Trojans' final 25 points over the final 9:02 to help seal the win.
"I think you saw tonight when he does what he does well he looks really good. When he rebounds, he defends, he moves his feet, he scores the ball in the paint, he uses his up-and-unders, his spins, his touch. He's got great hands and great feet and he can run," Enfield said of Rakocevic. "When he starts playing with the basketball on the perimeter like he did one time when he tried to drive from the 3-point line, when he's shooting step-back 3s and shooting airballs, that's when he looks like a bad player.
"You say maturation, he showed he was mature 90 percent of the time tonight and he looked great. Last game, not so much. ... When you do what you do well, he's an all-league player, and when he doesn't he's not."
This went on all last season too -- Enfield not hesitating to hold the 6-foot-11 big man accountable despite moslty consistently productive stat lines as he averaged 14.7 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Rakocevic is USC's top returning player and one of only a few holdovers amidst a roster turnover and influx of highly-regarded freshmen and trusted graduate transfers.
And through the first two games, Rakocevic didn't look like himself. He lasted just 13 minutes in the opener against Florida A&M, fouling out with just 4 points and 3 rebounds. He then managed 11 points and 8 rebounds against Portland.
"The whole foul trouble in the first game, that always throws me off for some reason. So that was the first game. The second game it was just kind of a mixture of things, getting back in the swing of things and playing a new position at the 4," he explained Tuesday night. "Sometimes it's not always going to be my night or Jonah's night. We've got a very deep roster."
When USC goes with its big lineup also featuring 6-foot-10 freshman Isaiah Mobley and the 6-foot-9 Okongwu, Rakocevic does have more perimeter defensive responsibilities than he's had in the past.
But offensively, Enfield simply wants him to stick to his comfort zone as he largely did Tuesday night.
"The step-back 3 he wasn't a fan of so I wasn't really mad about that -- that's not really my strength, but you know it's senior year so I decided to try it. Lesson learned. But yeah, he's always motivated me just to do things like this, just kind of crash the offensive glass and just stay aggressive on defense and on the offensive end," Rakocevic said. "... I've just got to stick to what I'm good at doing and hopefully it just makes us better as a team."
Rakocevic provided a spark early while scoring USC's first 7 points.
The Trojans opened up a 26-10 lead after a pair of 3-pointers from freshman Max Agbonkpolo and a basket by Okongwu, but South Dakota State made it interesting.
The Jackrabbits went 24-9 last season and played in the NIT, and they have been relevant in March a number of times. On this night, they clawed back into the game despite shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and turning it over 18 times. Noah Freidel made a couple 3s early in the second half to cut USC's lead to 40-39.
Elijah Weaver followed with a 3 for the Trojans, Douglas Wilson scored in the paint for the visitors, Rakocevic threw down a fastbreak dunk and Brandon Key hit a 3 on the other end to again cut it to a point at 45-44.
That's largely how the first 11 minutes of the second half played out.
"Any team you play in college basketball, for the most part, has a chance to beat you no matter what school," Enfield said. "This is a different sport than football. ... They're an excellent program, so we knew going in they could beat us if we didn't play well. So to have a close game in the second half and have to play through it I thought was good for our team to understand that, hey, even though we're in the Pac-12 and they're not that doesn't mean anything. You have to go and play each game and concentrate on what it takes to win."
USC did pull away down the stretch to remain unbeaten as it now goes on the road for the first time later this week with a trip to Nevada on Saturday.
After being led offensively by the talented 5-star freshman Okongwu the first two games, USC showed that it will also need to lean on its veterans at times this season as Rakocevic -- who added 5 steals and 2 blocks -- and Mathews (team-high three 3s) led the charge and got to share in a special moment with those dual 1,000-point milestones.
"They have a chance to do something special this year together -- be leaders of a team," Enfield said. "We have a lot of young players that look up to them, and if they continue to work hard and lead us I think we have a chance to have a successful season."
On the milestone ...
Mathews noted how he and Rakocevic have been friends since they were 16 on the basketball camp circuit, so that did add a significant layer to the feat for them both to reach the mark together.
"This is crazy. We came in here together, I've known him forever since I was 16, so just to have it on the same night is something special to both of us," Mathews said.
Said Rakocevic: "Just being in that column of people who have done a lot in this program, to be a part of that list is truly a blessing. ... And kind of what Jonah said, having it on the same night it was really cool, and I think that's something we're going to remember forever."