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In a 'Dunk City,' USC carves out a swat suburb

In a 'Dunk City,' USC carves out a swat suburb
USC forward Chimezie Metu looks to pass around Arizona State forward Obinna Oleka during the first half of a game on Feb. 26. (Matt York / Associated Press)

Chimezie Metu, USC's 6-foot-11, spidery-limbed shot blocker, was not embarrassed to report after Friday's practice that he had been the victim — on not one, but two occasions — of a brutal rejection. On dunks, no less. By a guard.

"There were no fouls," said Metu said. "He just — he blindsided me. I didn't see him coming. The first time, I had no idea where he was at. The second time I saw him coming, I just tried to shoot it anyway. And he got it."

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During games, Metu is almost always the blocker, not the blockee, but he just shrugged.

"It happens to everybody," he said.

"You can't really say nothing," the perpetrator, shooting guard Elijah Stewart, explained. "They were all clean."

A key to playing against USC's defense is swallowing a bit of pride. There will be blocks. Sometimes they will be humiliating. It is best to just move on.

True to Coach Andy Enfield's reputation for high-flying offenses, USC has also created its share of dunks — Metu alone has out-dunked the combined total of USC's opponents, according to statistics compiled by USC.

But USC's most defining stylistic feature has become not the slam but the rejection. Of all the major statistical categories, USC cracks the top-10 nationally in one: blocks. USC (22-8, 9-8 in the Pac-12) has 166 on the season, an average of 5.5 a game. The Trojans, who host Washington (9-20, 2-15) on Saturday in the final regular-season game, set a school record with 182 blocks last season.

If Enfield's system is still known best as "Dunk City," the Trojans have at least now founded a Swat Suburb.

"There's a big difference between when we win a Pac-12 game and when we don't between our activity: deflections, steals, blocks," Enfield said.

Metu leads the team in the category at 46, and he is usually responsible for the most psychologically damaging blocks. On Wednesday, Metu managed, in one motion, to reject an attempt by Washington State's Josh Hawkinson while also palming the ball, as if he were swinging a vacuum hose instead of hands.

"I was going to swat it, and he shot it right into my palm. So I just snatched it," Metu said.

USC's best per-minute shot blocker has actually been 7-footer Nick Rakocevic, who averages almost twice as many blocks per minute than Metu.

But the Trojans have been elite shot-blockers because of the contributions of their guards. Stewart, who has 36 blocks, ranks fifth in the nation among guards. De'Anthony Melton has 33, despite only starting slightly more than half the season.

Dunks and blocks usually require complementary skills. Enfield said he targets recruits with raw athletic ability, betting that the player can develop in his system. It is easier to develop a jump shooter than a shot-blocker.

"It's either you have it or you don't," Metu said.

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Still, there are ways to improve. Given the prerequisite athleticism, timing is the most important skill, Metu said. As a freshman, Metu abandoned his man too early, leading to easy passes or put-backs. He has now learned patience and the art of jumping second: leaving his feet, he learned, is a good way to pick up a foul. Some shooters, Metu said, try to use their eyes to deceive, and Metu tries to remember which ones look away when they are really about to shoot.

As a guard Stewart uses different cues. The majority of his blocks come on the perimeter — a rarity. So he studies a shooter's tendencies, much the way a cornerback learns to read a quarterback's motion to jump a route.

"We watch so much film you can tell when someone's going to shoot or what their favorite move into a jump shot is," Stewart said.

He said he learned right-handers usually like to pull up after a left-handed dribble, for instance.

Stewart thinks his block totals would be higher if not for Melton, a strong help defender, who can get in the way of Stewart's leaps.

"We argue about that all the time," Stewart said.

Not surprisingly, Metu, Stewart and Melton are USC's three most prolific dunkers, too. Metu said that his 66 slams and ally-oops were what he envisioned when he first watched Enfield coach at Florida Gulf Coast.

But the rejections?

"I had no idea," Metu said. "They don't show the highlights of the blocks, they just show the highlights of throwing lobs and jumping and all that stuff. But when you get older as a player, you kind of realize you have to defend in order to get that."

Etc.

USC hasn't reached double-digit conference wins (or a winning conference record) since 2011. … USC will honor forwards Samer Dhillon and Charles Buggs and manager Silas Gaines on senior day Saturday. Dhillon, who is from Sacramento, said about 30 family members will attend, including some who will travel from India.

NEXT UP

USC vs. Washington

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710.

Update: The status of star Washington guard Markelle Fultz is uncertain. The freshman averages 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, and is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft if he declares after the season, but he has missed four of six games with a knee injury. He did not play Wednesday against UCLA. … USC's fragile NCAA tournament hopes were boosted by a 23-point victory over Washington State on Wednesday.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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