The play USC Coach Andy Enfield was scribbling wouldn't have made much sense a year ago. During a timeout in the final minute, his team down one point during a game against Colorado in January, Enfield sketched out a simple concept on a whiteboard.
USC would swing the ball around the perimeter. Forward Chimezie Metu would set up on the block. The Trojans would get him the ball. And then they would get out of the way.
As a freshman last season, Metu was capable of making a game-winner — provided it was set up on a silver platter beforehand. But creating for himself was new.
He knew what to do when he received the pass. He posted, spun, stuttered a tick until the defender committed, then flicked a jump hook that was months in the making.
Colorado's Wesley Gordon defended well against the shot. It made no difference.
"Once he starts doing that, it's all over," guard De'Anthony Melton observed after the game. "I don't know who can guard him."
Metu's evolution into a scorer has brought USC to the verge of a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance despite the Trojans' losing a big chunk of last season's roster. If USC (23-8, 10-8 in the Pac-12 Conference) can defeat 11th seed Washington (9-21, 2-16) on Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, it is expected to lock up a bid. The winner will advance to play third-seeded UCLA, which would be a chance for USC to earn a higher NCAA tournament seed and avoid a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
The key will be Metu. USC is a team built on tempo and three-pointers. Metu's inside presence offers insurance for when USC's perimeter shots aren't falling, and a pressure-release valve, sucking in defenders toward the paint.
"It's really important, because we have a lot of guys that space the floor, a lot of shooters," said Metu, who is 6 feet 11. "We need somebody down there to kind of throw the ball to get a basket, get fouled. I'm that guy."
Metu arrived at USC with raw, explosive talent that required polish. He could dunk and block. But his offensive game lacked firepower. He needed more ways to score.
He had scattered moments last season, including a 21-point outburst against UCLA. But it was his only 20-point game of the season, and one of just six games in which he reached double figures.
During the off-season, he built a more expansive arsenal. Assistant coach Chris Capko devised drills to improve his handle.
By late July, his new tools were ready for public consumption. During a Drew League game, he beat a defender off the dribble, accelerated along the baseline, then dunked on the bigger opponent: The Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside.
Most days during the summer, Metu worked with assistant coach Jason Hart. They would begin next to the basket, developing an inside game. Then they would creep outward, constructing a hook and jump shot.
Enfield said Metu re-engineered his shooting form at USC. He used to dip the ball behind his head, like a soccer player launching a throw-in. Enfield coaxed the release out front.
When Hart would leave, Metu would stay and shoot with an automatic rebound machine.
"It was a lot of hours in there by myself," Metu said. "When the season came around it was kind of like second nature. If I was open, I knew I was going to knock it down."
The improvement was marked. He is second on the team in points per game, at 14.4, and he is the leader in rebounds, at 7.6
His free-throw accuracy improved by 21 percentage points from last season. He has been efficient, leading USC's starters in effective field-goal percentage at 54.9%. He made nine of 11 shots against San Diego, 11 of 14 against Colorado and 12 of 14 against Washington State.
And, on Monday, Metu was named the Pac-12's most improved player.
"All you've got to do is just throw up by the rim and he'll go get it no matter where it's at," teammate Jordan McLaughlin said. "When you can give him the ball in open space, he can handle it. He can pass it. He can now shoot."
Added Enfield: "He's becoming an all-around player."
USC vs. Washington
When: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710.
Update: USC encountered some resistance in its regular-season finale against Washington, though the Trojans won by a comfortable margin, 74-58. The Huskies played that game without star guard Markelle Fultz, who has missed five of his last seven games with a sore knee. "We have to prepare for him like he's going to play," Enfield said. … Most NCAA tournament projections list USC as in the field, but just barely. "We're not thinking about the NCAA tournament," Enfield said. "All I know is we're in a tough league. We're the only team in the country that played seven teams with 26 or more wins. And we have 23 wins [ourselves]. So we've had a successful season so far."