When USC senior Jonah Mathews backed up the Galen Center floor after his step back, last-second 3 against UCLA in the regular season finale on March 7, the Trojans looked poised for their best post-season in more than a decade.
Filled with five seniors and a future NBA lottery pick, USC was the trendy dark horse pick for a deep NCAA tournament run. However, Mathews’ game winner was the last of the season. Five days later, the NCAA canceled March Madness when the coronavirus pandemic brought the sports world to a standstill.
On Wednesday at 6pm, the Trojans open their 2020-21 schedule – just completed this week – against California Baptist for an empty Galen center with a rising pandemic and game cancellations still a possibility. With one returning starter, five new transfers and the No. 2 recruit in the country, USC – just like the season it will play – is a mystery.
“It’s going to be very unusual this season,” said head coach Andy Enfield in his eighth season with the Trojans.
Due to the pandemic, the team’s seven newcomers (including three graduate transfers) initially had to use video to familiarize themselves with Enfield’s crime. You didn’t have to study much: five-star signee Evan Mobley.
The highest-placed player to ever sign with the Trojans, Mobley learned from older brother Isaiah, a second forward and reserve last season. The two will be key to USC’s success, taking over from No. 6 overall draft pick Onyeka Okongwu and graduate senior Nick Rakocevic.
Like Okongwu, Evan Mobley is a nimble big man who can dominate on offense and defense, and stretch the floor. Also a likely lottery pick, he has a high basketball IQ and in preseason scrimmages led the team in the assist to turnover ratio.
“I’ve been spoiled for choice with Big O (Okongwu),” said Ethan Anderson. “I am spoiled again with Evan Mobley. I don’t even have to look at some of my passes for Evan. … His ability to shoot with the 3 pointer will be on display in full this season. ”
Integrating Evan Mobley – named to the Naismith Award Watch List and NABC Player of the Year Watch List this month – will be the easy part. Making up for the 89.6% of the score and 88.5% of the lost USC 3-point shooting will be much more challenging given Enfield’s reliance on perimeter score.
Isaiah Mobley can come from outside the arc, as can Anderson (37.8% from 3 last season), but the most intriguing option for scoring the perimeter could be junior combo guard Noah Baumann. A transfer from the state of San Jose is now eligible after serving for a year, Baumann will not be a distributor or creator of a shot, but he shot 45.5% of 3-point range in 2018-19, taking more than made six tries per game.
Security guard Drew Peterson (6-8, 185) – who has spent the past two years at Rice – could help with the facilitation after being immediately eligible early this week. Peterson (11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg) moves the ball well and has the ability to find the open man.
Anderson will tie the group together as they struggle to play for empty Pac-12 arenas and a schedule that may change daily due to COVID-19 protocols that have already shaken the conference football slate. As a freshman, he started 28 games, averaged 4.2 assists and showed flashes of brilliance, but turned the ball 2.3 times per game and shot only 55% of the free throw line.
This summer, the Carson native and USC’s only recurring starter brought his new teammates to local gyms to train in small groups of three or four, taking on the lead role modeled by Mathews and Rakocevic.
“I think we can achieve a lot this season,” said Anderson. ‘All our exercises, our scrimmages, are close by. The last four or five amounted to a recording of the last second. ”