It was just minutes after USC’s dominant win over UCLA on Saturday afternoon, and the Trojans were already fielding questions about the challenges ahead.
Bennie Boatwright was asked how his team can start playing as well on the road as it does at home. He answered truthfully, saying it’s tough to win on the road even in a down year for the Pac-12 Conference and added that the Trojans just have to compete harder. Then, he asked, “Who do we play next week?”
He was informed that USC is welcoming the Arizona schools to the Galen Center this week.
“Oh, we’re at home next week?” Boatwright said with a smile that hinted at relief. “We’re going to be well-rested and ready to go.”
The exchange laid out two truths about this USC team, which is 10-8 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12 entering Thursday night’s game against Arizona: First, the Trojans are very aware how much better they are at Galen than away (USC is 1-6 with the lone win coming against Missouri State in Kansas City, Mo.). At the same time, they expect to win every home game the rest of the way, now that Boatwright has joined Nick Rakocevic in playing like one of the best players in the Pac-12.
Because USC is such a poor road team, it makes home games like this one against the Wildcats and Saturday night’s against Arizona State even more important to win.
“We’re improving,” USC coach Andy Enfield said, “but we could beat any team or we could lose to any team on our schedule. The margin of error is very small for this team.”
USC still does not have any wins befitting of an NCAA tournament resume, and those will be hard to come by against this Pac-12 schedule. That puts the Trojans in the position of putting all of their emphasis on simply improving to become the best team they can be in the Pac-12 tournament, where they can earn a spot in the NCAA tournament the old-fashioned way.
It also allows Enfield to be patient with bringing freshman Kevin Porter Jr. back from his indefinite suspension because of an undisclosed conduct issue — but not too patient. Porter still hasn’t had the chance to build the chemistry with his teammates that it would take for USC to take the next step in performance.
Boatwright, who is third in Pac-12 games with 17.3 points per game, appears up to the task of getting the Trojans through this weekend unscathed and onto their next road test, at Pac-12 leader Washington, on Jan. 30.
“The first month he was playing, we had to play Nevada, TCU, Oklahoma, all top-25 teams when Bennie had not played in eight months,” Enfield said. “And you’ve seen mid-December, he’s a totally different player. His rhythm, his feel. He’s defending, and he has a flow to his offensive game.”
Said Boatwright: “I don’t think people understand how tough it is coming back from an injury. You’re not just going to come out and score 20, 30. You’ve got to work your way up. It’s a tough process and you’ve got to stay strong mentally, and I did that.”
When: 6 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 830.