Column: USC’s bid to NCAA tournament will depend on players stepping up when needed

USC head coach Andy Enfield, right, yells at forward Nick Rakocevic during the first half against UCLA on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Andy Enfield sounded as if USC had beaten Duke or Kansas.

The USC coach described the Trojans’ latest victims as “a terrific basketball team.”

“Exceptionally talented,” he added.

UCLA isn’t either of those things.

UCLA’s own coach described the Bruins’ defense Saturday night as “terrible.”

“We actually had no chance to win,” Mick Cronin said.

Why Enfield would overstate UCLA’s ability is understandable. At 13-3 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12, USC figures to be on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Trojans don’t have any signature victories to their name, the closest to one being a win over unranked LSU last month. The 74-63 victory at Pauley Pavilion didn’t change that.


The triumph was nonetheless critical to the Trojans’ postseason chances. If only for a game, USC didn’t have a one-man offense.

Whether the Trojans can play well enough in the Pac-12 to reach the NCAA tournament will almost certainly depend on their ability to win games when star freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu is slowed down.

As he was by UCLA.

“They were pushing and shoving and limiting his post touches,” Enfield said. “They fronted the post. They gave great weak-side help. It was hard to get him the ball.”

How the Trojans responded was markedly different from a week earlier, when Okongwu was held to 10 points and they were blown out in Washington, 72-40.

A projected NBA first-round pick who entered the UCLA game averaging 17.8 points per game, Okongwu was even quieter against the Bruins than he was against the Huskies. Foul trouble limited him to 24 minutes. He attempted only three field goals and scored a season-low four points.

But four Trojans scored in double figures, including seniors Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Mathews and Daniel Utomi.

Rakocevic registered 17 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs. The 6-foot-11 forward scored only six points in Washington, where he was 2 for 14 from the field.

“Played one of the worst games of my career against Washington,” Rakocevic said. “Then I came out here and played one of my best ones. You just got to move on.”

For Rakocevic and the other seniors, the victory on Saturday was their first at Pauley Pavilion. USC’s last win in the building was in 2016.

USC dominated UCLA inside and won easily despite Onyeka Okongwu’s minor production.

“I wanted this one bad,” Rakocevic said.

But the most pivotal development was the breakout performance by point guard Ethan Anderson, a member of the team’s celebrated freshman class.

Anderson attempted only one field goal against Washington, none in the game before that against Washington State.

He scored a career-high 14 points against UCLA.

“What a game he had,” Enfield said.

Enfield wasn’t exaggerating this time.

Whereas coaches generally have to convince freshmen to subjugate their egos and accept lesser roles than they played in high school, Enfield has been encouraging Anderson to recapture the mentality he had when he was the Los Angeles City Section player of the year as a senior at Fairfax High.

“He said he wanted me to play how I played in high school,” Anderson said. “So, I think, me being aggressive, our team is a lot better that way. I can free up shots for my other teammates, like I did in the second half.”

Anderson scored 12 of his points in the first half. The Trojans went into halftime with a 33-31 lead.

When the Bruins started paying more attention to Anderson was when the Trojans took control of the game. USC shot 69.6% from the field in the second half, in which it was up by as many as 14 points.

“I thought our players really moved the ball well,” Enfield said. “They took great shots.”

They also became the first team this season to out-rebound UCLA despite Okongwu and 6-foot-10 freshman forward Isaiah Mobley combining for only seven rebounds.

Excitement is back at San Diego State, where the team is unbeaten and the arena is packed.

Mindful of UCLA’s rebounding prowess, Enfield started the 225-pound Utomi in place of the 210-pound Weaver to add strength to his lineup. UCLA’s rotation featured five players who are 6-foot-9 or taller.

USC, which has played only two of its last 10 games at Galen Center, will host Cal and Stanford this week.

Okongwu should resume scoring. He’s too talented not to. The question is how many other offensive weapons the Trojans will have. The answer will determine what they are doing in March.