In the “one and done” era that has dominated college basketball, it is rare to find a program that relies on veteran leadership. USC goes against the grain in this fashion, starting four upperclassmen, all of whom are making major contributions to a team that is 9-4 heading into Pac-12 play.
The Trojans are currently riding a three-game winning streak that helped propel them to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic championship, a tournament USC has won twice in program history. Their 77-72 win against New Mexico State in the final round came down to the wire, but a big game from junior Bennie Boatwright made all the difference.
Boatwright exploded for a game-high 33 points, aided by his 6-10 3-point shooting performance. The most important of these triples came in the final five seconds of the match, breaking a 72-72 tie, to give the Trojans a lead they would never relinquish. Senior guard Jordan McLaughlin led USC in assists with eight, the final of which came on Boatwright’s game-sealing three, demonstrating the chemistry this team has built through years of playing with each other.
While Boatwright was the hero of the championship game, getting to that point took a team effort. In a come-from-behind victory against Akron, Boatwright was sent to the locker room early after earning a flagrant two-foul in the first half. Fortunately, senior guard Elijah Stewart and junior forward Chimezie Metu stepped up in Boatwright’s absence.
The duo combined for 15 points in a 20-5 run to start the second half, giving USC a 49-38 lead, after having trailed 33-29 at halftime. Akron never recovered and wound up falling to the Trojans 84-53.
In the team’s next game against Middle Tennessee, Boatwright’s range again came in to play, as he hit a 3-pointer with just under 7:30 left to play, giving USC a 67-66 lead and momentum that carried them through the rest of the match. For the game, Boatwright and Metu combined to score 50 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists.
USC’s veteran presence is apparent in highly-contested games, like the ones that took place at the Diamond Head Classic, as well as on the stat sheet. Boatwright, Metu, Stewart, and McLaughlin lead the Trojans in every major statistical category. Metu is the team’s top scorer and rebounder, with 18 and eight, respectively. McLaughlin boasts the most assists per game, with eight as well.
The four upperclassmen all play over 30 minutes per game, and score 12 or more points per game each. The efficiency in which they score these points, is what makes them so dangerous. Metu leads the way in field goal percentage, making 54 percent of his shots and 56 percent of the 3-pointers he takes.
In fact, Boatwright is the least efficient of the four, hitting 43 percent of his field goals, and 36 percent of his threes. While not hyper-efficient, these numbers are nothing to scoff at, especially as a 6-foot 10-inch forward who can consistently stretch the floor.
Feel-good wins and solid statistics aside, USC is still searching for the marquee victory to prove that they’re talented enough to run with the big names of college basketball. In the two tests the Trojans have had so far, they have come up short.
The first time they faced off against a ranked opponent, the then-16th ranked Texas A&M Aggies, USC lead 10-7 with 16 minutes left in the first half, before Texas A&M took control and never let up. The Aggies would go on to blow out the Trojans 75-59. Texas A&M is now ranked 5th in the nation, so a victory for USC would have been a major upset.
The Trojans also drew a matchup against the Oklahoma Sooners, and freshman phenom Trae Young, who leads the nation in points and assists, with 28 and 10, respectively. Young did his thing against USC, scoring 29 points to help the Sooners take an 85-83 win. Oklahoma is now the 12th ranked team in the nation, so the Trojans’ ability to hang tight with this squad should be seen as a positive sign.
A win against the 10-3 Washington Huskies to open Pac-12 play would be a big statement for USC. Washington already has a signature win this season, defeating the then 2nd ranked Kansas Jayhawks 74-65. The first key to defeating the Huskies is to stop their top-tier freshman Jaylen Nowell, who scores 17 points per game on 50 percent shooting.
To do so, USC must force him, along with the entire Washington team, to continually pass the ball. The Huskies average 13 assists per game as a team, to 14 turnovers. The more the ball is moving, the higher chance the Trojans will have to take it away. Nowell turns it over two times per game, an area of weakness USC must exploit.
The success the Trojans are having thus far with a lineup of upperclassmen is refreshing to see. They are proving that five-star freshman recruits aren’t the only way to make a splash in college basketball. It is only a matter of time before they collect a win that gets the nation’s collective attention. And when they do, everyone will point to their veteran leadership as the key to their unexpected emergence.