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USC and SMU, two teams forged by loss, have changed since a November meeting

USC and SMU, two teams forged by loss, have changed since a November meeting
USC guard De'Anthony Melton takes a shot against the defense of Southern Methodist forward Semi Ojeleye during the second half on Nov. 25. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

On Dec. 1, six days after USC defeated Southern Methodist, Jordan McLaughlin's phone buzzed with news that would rattle the Trojans' season.

It was from forward Bennie Boatwright, who had just emerged from an MRI exam after leaving USC's game the previous day on crutches and in a massive knee brace.

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"It was really scary," guard Elijah Stewart said.

Boatwright gave McLaughlin the diagnosis. A bad sprain, he said. He'd be out for a chunk of the season. But he'd return.

About a week later, SMU's players also received a season-altering announcement. Harry Froling, the team's center and only player taller than 6 feet 8, was leaving the program.

"I was hoping to play a much more significant role than the one I have here now," he said.

The December jolts have set each team on a trajectory toward Friday when they will meet again, this time in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Both teams have evolved since their November meeting. The biggest change has been how each was forged by loss.

The loss of USC's offensive focal point thrust freshmen into major roles whether they were ready or not, creating minutes for players such as Nick Rakocevic, whose energy USC (25-9) mainlined to overcome a 17-point second-half deficit against Providence on Wednesday.

After SMU (30-4) lost Froling, first-year Coach Tim Jankovich chose to double down on an unusual lineup: a short, lung-busting six-man rotation of positionless players. The Mustangs have lost only one game since.

Before USC left Monday to play Providence, assistant coaches Chris Capko and Martin Bahar were already at work on SMU. They pieced together a report, gathering film from USC's first meeting and on SMU's more recent games.

"When we played them earlier in the season, we thought they were pretty good," Capko said.

The Mustangs now, he said, are sharper, crisper.

Froling didn't start in November, but when he entered the game SMU's style would change, slowing to a more traditional offense. The shift was marked, and Froling felt suffocated.

Jankovich's strategy was borne out of necessity: Hobbled by NCAA sanctions, the Mustangs had only nine scholarship players. They had to be versatile. Froling's departure removed the shackles on Jankovich's experiment.

Now, Jankovich said, his parts are "interchangeable." One opposing coach, Temple's Fran Dunphy, said last month that the Mustangs don't play guards or "bigs." Rather, he said, "they play with five mediums."

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Said Jankovich: "This team is so fun because we really … don't have positions," Jankovich said. It has worked, he said, because "we're taking some people out of their comfort zones."

His lineup is strikingly uniform, a rotation of tweeners. The shortest regulars, at 6-6, are two inches shorter than the tallest, 6-8 Ben Moore. The lightest, 205-pound Shake Milton, isn't much smaller than the heaviest, 235-pound Semi Ojeleye.

It is a style USC hadn't seen this season, with one exception: Providence played similarly, the Trojans said.

The Mustangs' offense is 10th nationally in efficiency. Their defense moves as one, like a flock of birds darting in unison. Every player can guard almost every position. All can create. All but Moore like to shoot from outside, "but he does everything else," Bahar said.

"They're just really playing in sync right now," Bahar said. "You hate to prepare for them because you know they're really good. But as a basketball fan, they're actually really fun to watch."

He added: "There's a lot of similarities between our two teams."

Moore said the Mustangs "feel like we owe 'em one" after their 78-73 loss to USC at the Galen Center in November. In that game, they caught a glimpse of the Trojans' maturation. Boatwright led all scorers, but it was USC's freshmen that stood out. In limited minutes, Jonah Mathews scored 14 points. De'Anthony Melton had 15.

Boatwright was injured two games later, and "we had to just adjust on the fly," McLaughlin said.

The coaching staff met the morning of Boatwright's injury, shortly before his medical exam. Over coffee in a hotel lobby in San Diego, they decided that they would lean on their freshmen. Not that they had much of a choice. Off-season departures left Enfield, like Jankovich, with a thin roster.

The result was the development of Mathews and Melton into pillars and two of USC's best defenders. Rakocevic's contributions were more modest until Wednesday.

"They were thrown into the fire," forward Chimezie Metu said. "So now at the biggest stage, they're ready."

Their quick development kept USC afloat without Boatwright.

As USC inched closer to the bubble by the end of the season, Enfield began repeating versions of the same line. SMU, he said, was much better than people had realized. He considered the game a win over one of the best teams in the country.

"I was their biggest fan when we played them in November," Enfield said. "And I'm still their biggest fan."

Just not Friday.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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