When the USC basketball team took the court for tipoff in its season opener Tuesday night, inexperienced sophomore Victor Uyaelunmo got the start at center instead of two-year contributor Nick Rakocevic.
“The five guys that deserve to start from the preseason were the ones that started,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
Enfield was trying to send a message to Rakocevic, a junior who will be expected to take on a much bigger role this season with the departure of Chimezie Metu to the NBA.
Rakocevic responded in USC’s 83-62 win over Robert Morris, but not immediately.
“I missed my first three,” Rakocevic said, “and [my teammates] believed in me. They kept saying, ‘Play your game.’”
Something clicked during the second half. Rakocevic finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
“I think Nick understood that he was playing too passive, shooting turnaround jump shots against smaller players, wasn’t going to the boards,” Enfield said. “And then he just turned it on, was much more aggressive. I thought he played one of his best halves of basketball in a long time.”
USC welcomes Vanderbilt to Galen Center on Sunday night for its first test of the season. The Trojans could be without forward Bennie Boatwright, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Without Boatwright, the Rakocevic from the second half will be needed for USC to move to 2-0.
“I definitely want to keep expanding my game, staying aggressive on the boards,” Rakocevic said. “It will be a little bit easier when Bennie’s back, so I don’t have to grab 16 or 17, but I’ll do that every game if I have to.”
When: 6 p.m., Sunday
Where: Galen Center
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710 AM.