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Nick Rakocevic has stepped up his game since becoming a starter for USC

Nick Rakocevic is making the most of his opportunities.

The USC sophomore forward began the season as a reserve, but as Bennie Boatwright struggled with a foot injury during nonconference play and again after a couple Pac-12 Conference games, Rakocevic made his way into the starting lineup.

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Even when Boatwright, who was among the team's leading scorers, returned from his injury, coach Andy Enfield elected to keep Rakocevic as a starter.

"He's been playing very good basketball," Enfield said. "He's really improved his game."

With Boatwright now sidelined for the season because of a knee injury, Rakocevic is expected to make his 10th consecutive start Saturday when USC (21-9 overall and 12-5 in conference) plays UCLA (19-10, 10-7) at the Galen Center in the regular-season finale for both teams.

"Coach has faith in me now to play those minutes," Rakocevic said. "And being able to score the ball down low and rebound every game."

The 6-foot-11, 225-pound Rakocevic is averaging 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game. He's shooting 62.2%, having made 97 of 156 field-goal attempts.

"We want him to go in there, play defense, be loud, be energetic and offensive rebound," senior point guard Jordan McLaughlin said. "He causes a lot of extra possessions for us."

Even as USC went on a three-game losing streak at the start of February, Rakocevic stood out.

In a loss at UCLA, he recorded his third double-double this season, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Rakocevic followed with a six-for-six shooting performance, scoring 19 points, in a loss at Arizona State.

"I never really try to force any shots," Rakocevic said. "I just always try to take good shots and put myself in position to make it."

Against Arizona, Rakocevic had to go up against freshman DeAndre Ayton, a 7-1, 250-pound forward who could be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, and Dusan Ristic, a 7-foot, 245-pound center. Rakocevic was clearly out-muscled, but still had 12 points and nine rebounds.

USC has won its last four games and has reached 20 victories for the third season in a row. Rakocevic's numbers in the win streak have been modest (5.3 points, 5.0 rebounds), but his all-around effort has helped the Trojans play some of their best basketball of the season.

USC has clinched at least a second-place finish in conference and a first-round bye for the Pac-12 tournament, which starts March 7.

"I come in before practice and do some work. I come after practice," Rakocevic said, adding that McLaughlin has aided in his success. "When you have guards who get you the ball off pick-and-rolls and just kind of find you and are able to create space and get it to you, it makes my job a lot easier."

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McLaughlin said it was apparent that Rakocevic, who once struggled on offense, has put in the extra effort this season.

"He's got great hands, so whenever he rolls, I try to look for him," McLaughlin said.

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry

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