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USC Sports

European trip gave USC’s basketball team chance to bond

Basketball players Nick Rakocevic of USC and Jules Bernard of UCLA
Nick Rakocevic, 15 points away from 1,000 for his career, is one of four returners on USC’s roster.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Somewhere off the palm-covered coast of Cannes, floating along the French Riviera via catamaran, a brand new USC basketball team composed of four returning players, two graduate transfers, one normal transfer, and five — soon-to-be six — freshmen began to feel like one.

It was August in South France, the second of three stops on USC’s 11-day, summer basketball tour of Europe, and coach Andy Enfield could already sense the trip was a success.

As he soaked in the scene, his players snorkeled and swam and paddle-boarded through the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. For a new team with new vibes and new dynamics, with new personalities and new attitudes, there weren’t many better methods for team bonding.

Heading into his seventh season at the helm of USC basketball, with a top-10 class of freshmen in tow, those bonding efforts are as crucial as they’ve ever been for the 50-year-old Enfield.

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An almost entirely new roster offers somewhat of a clean slate for Enfield and USC following a disappointing 16-17 campaign marred by injuries and off-court distractions.

But a clean slate also comes with its own challenges, and in Europe, where the team would be together day in and day out, from Barcelona to Cannes to Paris, fragile bonds could be tested.

Instead, as they began in Barcelona, Nick Rakocevic sensed those bonds strengthening. The senior big man, who sits 15 points away from 1,000 for his career, is one of just four returners on USC’s roster. With so many new teammates, he noticed right away the vibe was different vibe this year than last, when the team was “more outgoing” and had “more characters.”

“This year, I feel like the younger group is just so humble, so quiet, so to themselves, all they want to do is learn, learn, learn,” Rakocevic said. “Their minds are like sponges; they’re just trying to absorb everything.”

All five of USC basketball’s heralded freshmen spent four years playing for their respective high school in an era of transfers.

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It’s that touted freshman class that gives the Trojans hope of possibly competing for a Pac-12 title.

Highlighted by two five-star big men in Chino Hills’ Onyeka Okongwu, last year’s Times player of the year, and Murrieta’s Isaiah Mobley, it’s the most talented class Enfield has brought in as USC’s coach. In an improved Pac-12 picture, both Mobley and Okongwu, as well as the Trojans’ four other freshmen, will be counted on to contribute right away.

Those two first-year bigs, both of whom might spark draft buzz this season, seem well on their way to featured roles at USC. Over three exhibition wins in Europe, Okongwu averaged 21 points and twice led the team in scoring. His penchant for picking up easy points around the basket is already earning plaudits from teammates and coaches.

After foot surgery in June, Mobley didn’t join the team until fall practice began nearly two weeks ago, but already, the Rancho Christian School standout has made an impression.

“He’s unique at 6 foot 10,” Enfield said of Mobley. “He can put the ball on the floor. He can post up. He can play on the perimeter. He can play in the mid-post. And defensively, he’s a very good rebounder.

“He does everything,” Rakocevic added.

Enfield has experimented early on with lineups that include all three of those bigs, with Rakocevic joining the two five-star freshman for a super-sized look. All three are great passers, Enfield said, and with each standing 6-9 or taller, their potential on the defensive end could be staggering.

But before unlocking that on-court chemistry, it would take some time for the newcomers to break out of their shell.

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USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu, flanked by two opponents, was a star at Chino Hills.
USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu, center, was a star at Chino Hills.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“It was weird for a bit, for sure,” Rakocevic said. “Besides me, Jonah [Matthews], Chuck [O’Bannon Jr.] and Elijah Weaver, I was joking around, nobody said anything for the first month.”

It was in Barcelona where those walls started to come down. Together, they wandered wide-eyed through each stop on their European tour, complaining about the humidity, gushing about the beauty of Spanish women, laughing at new inside jokes.

“This team, man, everything just clicked,” said Daniel Utomi, one of USC’s graduate transfers who previously played at Akron. “You could just feel it.”

On the court, it wasn’t hard to notice, either. The freshmen played with confidence from the jump. Utomi and fellow grad transfer guard Quinton Adlesh naturally stepped into leadership roles — so much so that Adlesh, who came from Columbia, was named a team captain alongside Matthews, the sharpshooting senior guard.

And the returners stepped into new roles, talking eagerly about how much talent now surrounded them.

“You can see how well we play together,” Rakocevic said. “There’s no bickering on the court. The chemistry is just so much more fluid.”

The Trojans would sweep through select teams from France, Spain and Lithuania, feeling their way through a new system and new roster.

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But midway through, on a catamaran off the shore of Cannes, the basketball was, for a few brief hours, secondary. The trip had brought them closer together, bonding them in ways only faraway travel can, and for a talented team teeming with hope for a turnaround season, that time could prove precious down the line.

“Oh, we all want to go back,” Utomi said, with a smile. “If I could go back, I would go back right now.”


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