In one way, USC basketball coach Andy Enfield would love for this season to mirror last season. The 2017-18 Trojans started slowly and were plagued by personnel issues, but they turned it on once they entered Pac-12 play with a 12-6 record and put themselves firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“League play is different than nonconference,” Enfield said, “and you really can’t just go on out-of-conference schedules or performance to say who will be the favorite.”
In another way, though, Enfield would prefer a different scenario to play out. A year ago, the Trojans never got NBA talent DeAnthony Melton back in the lineup because of his indefinite suspension stemming from the federal investigation into USC assistant coach Tony Bland, and they lost Bennie Boatwright to a season-ending injury in mid-February. This season, USC enters the league slate with eight scholarship players available, as projected NBA lottery pick Kevin Porter Jr. recovers from a lingering thigh bruise that has kept him out since Thanksgiving.
“We had a similar situation last year with DeAnthony Melton being out,” Enfield said. “We were expecting him back. We were hopeful. It’s almost like Kevin Porter this year.”
Porter has not returned to practice, Enfield said, and will not be available Thursday night for the conference opener against California at the Galen Center. Porter is “very doubtful” for the game Sunday against Stanford.
“We are still in the process of waiting,” Enfield said, “and he’s diligently doing therapy to try to get back on the court.”
The Trojans (7-6) have a chance to build momentum early in the Pac-12. Their first three games are against the Golden Bears (5-7), Stanford (7-5) and Oregon State (8-4).
They’ll have to do it without Porter, Charles O’Bannon Jr. (finger injury) and Jordan Usher, who announced his transfer from the program this week after he was suspended indefinitely before the win Sunday over UC Davis.
Usher is a big loss for USC because he was able to play on the wing and as a smaller inside option. Now, if big men Nick Rakocevic or Boatwright get into foul trouble, the Trojans will have to play small or break in little-used big men J’Raan Brooks or Victor Uyaelunmo.
USC will also need more from freshman point guard Elijah Weaver as the lone perimeter player off the bench.
“Our team’s been playing better basketball the last two weeks,” Enfield said. “We’ve had great practice, and we’ve played good team defense the last two games, and we’ve shared the ball on offense with 44 assists in two games.
“Even though it’s been extremely challenging with our injuries and lineup changes and lack of depth in certain games, we’re excited to see what we can do in the Pac-12, because the players that are on the court right now are playing well.”
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710.