USC's new supporting cast delivers big in comfortable win over Montana
The most encouraging stat for the USC basketball team on Saturday night was that the Trojans managed to build a 19-point halftime lead with 5-star freshman forward Evan Mobley taking (and making) just one shot in the first half.
Certainly, Mobley is going to have plenty of big games with the Trojans -- he'd finish with 11 points and 7 rebounds in this one and played solidly overall -- but the fact that USC could put together such an impressive opening half without needing him to be the focal point bodes well for this squad.
The Trojans mostly coasted from there, never letting that lead dip below double digits while closing out a 76-62 win over Montana inside Galen Center to improve to 2-0 this season.
"We're trying to understand our team because we have so many new players, and we didn't have a preseason, we didn't have a summer to evaluate them, to work on their skills, to put them in our system to really get a good feel," coach Andy Enfield said. "And then they had never played together. So the first time they ever played against another team was the other night -- no scrimmages. So this is a new experience for our players playing together; it's also new for our coaching staff to coach them and develop a rotation and get to know what they can do well and what they need to improve on. So I think every game is a learning experience."
USC certainly endured a learning experience in its season opener, needing overtime to secure a 95-87 win over Cal Baptist on Wednesday night as the visitors hits 20 of 41 3-pointers.
The defense was much better Saturday night. The Trojans held Montana (0-1) to 33.9-percent shooting for the game (and just 4 of 17 from 3-point range).
But it was the variety of offensive contributors that really stood out.
Drew Peterson, the 6-foot-8 guard who transferred in from Rice, had a game-high 13 points on an efficient 3-of-4 shooting (2 of 3 from 3-point range) and even handled some point guard for the Trojans.
Isaiah White, the 6-foot-7 guard from Utah Valley, needed just 14 points to score 10 points (8 of 10 from the free throw line) before fouling out. He played with confidence and aggressiveness throughout the game, making several tough drives in the paint to draw contact and set up easy points.
Sophomore point guard Ethan Anderson had 9 points and 5 assists and connected on 2 of 3 3-pointers, delivering on his preseason promise to be a more aggressive and efficient shooter from the perimeter.
Grad transfer Chevez Goodwin, a 6-foot-9 forward from Wofford, chipped in 8 points and 7 rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
And sophomore Isaiah Mobley offset a rough offensive game (6 points on 1-of-7 shooting, 4 of 8 from the line) with a game-high 13 rebounds.
"First night was kind of ugly -- it wasn't our best basketball, but it was the first night in nine months. A lot of people forget that," Goodwin said. "But I think this night was a lot better, we played a lot better as a team, and our biggest thing moving forward is we've just got to focus on our energy -- bring more energy to the game. Obviously there's no fans, so we've got to bring our own energy. If we can build on that and focus on that I think everything else will fall into place, because our team's really talented and well coached."
The Trojans certainly had that energy over the first 13 or so minutes Saturday night as they jumped out to a quick 14-2 lead and later a 32-8 lead with 7 minutes, 21 seconds to go in the first half. They had assists on seven of their first 10 baskets with nine different players contributing points on that way to that quick 24-point lead. They would take a 44-25 lead into halftime.
"It just shows the level of talent we've got out there. Especially with our bigs and when we're playing as a unit, our talent can take us to levels that can win us a Pac-12 championship and we know that," Peterson said. "So when we're playing efficiently, we're ready to go, we get outcomes like this."
Added Goodwin: "Yeah, the first 10 minutes really tell you what type of team we can be. I think we're a really special group. ... The time we have had together, that showed right there in those 10 minutes that we can play really well together."
The officials got happy with the whistle across the second half, slowing the pace of play, but again, the Trojans were never truly threatened.
Enfield was asked what stood out to him about the newcomers and he quipped that he feels like they're all newcomers.
"Our whole team is a newcomer, even the guys last year because they're all in new roles. Isaiah Mobley is a starter now, Max [Agbonkpolo] is playing a lot more minutes. Ethan is probably the only guy that has a similar role because he started for us last year, but other than Ethan everyone else on the team is like a new player because they're all being asked to do things that either they were here and they didn't do last year or they're just brand new and they're trying to figure out," he said. "We're trying to figure out what our strengths are as a coaching staff because it's one thing to see them in practice go against each other -- but you just don't know until the lights go on and you play against another team.
"So that's the disadvantage of us not having a summer and really fall workouts because of where we live and the COVID situation in Los Angeles County, the state of California. But also it's a fact that we have so many new players. I'm really impressed with the chemistry. They're a lot of fun to coach, our staff loves walking into the gym every day, they work hard and they have great camaraderie among each other. I think if they can keep that, we should keep improving as a basketball team."
-Isaiah Mobley set a career high with those 13 rebounds, but his touch was just off all night on the offensive end. He put himself in plenty of situations to score and just couldn't convert, while continuing to struggle from the foul line, where he's now 6 of 17 for the season. If he puts it all together on both ends at some point this season, it would really elevate the upside of this team overall, but Mobley did have a net positive impact Saturday night with his work on the boards and being a disruptor inside.
"The first six [free throws] he took he made four and he looked really good. The last two they weren't terrible, but he's just got to get better. He's working on it, and I think the next few games he'll keep improving," Enfield said. "We didn't have an offseason to work on a lot of the skills that we normally would, so a lot of things we're trying to teach and he's trying to work on in a condensed manner."
-After going for 21 points and 9 rebounds in the opener, Evan Mobley had a quieter offensive night, as mentioned, but he was still impressive. Enfield raved in the preseason about Mobley's passing and he showed in moments Saturday night. His best pass came when he got double-teamed in the corner and found White wide open under the basket for an easy dunk. The 7-footer also brought the ball up in transition and set up Agbonkpolo for an easy alley-oop dunk.
The younger Mobley picked up the scoring in the second half as well, including this dunk.
-USC hasn't played any Pac-12 competition yet, but White and Goodwin really look like they belong at this level after playing for small mid-majors previously. That was one of the big questions coming into this season -- what to expect from guys like that moving up to tougher competition. It's too early to have a confident answer, but both play with aggressiveness and assuredness on the offensive end and aren't afraid to look for their shots and go in tough in the paint.
-And Peterson looks like he's going to have a major impact on this team. He didn't get his eligibility granted until soon before the start of the season, and the upside for this roster might be a lot different had he not. Along with Anderson and Tahj Eaddy, he's a capable ball-handler and a threat from the perimeter.