Years before the two towering freshmen would become USC’s best hope at a long-awaited return to basketball prominence, before the hype and the pressure and the tremendous expectations, Onyeka Okongwu laid out his plans to Isaiah Mobley.
He was going to be a Trojan.
“He always knew I was coming here, since I was in eighth grade or ninth grade,” Okongwu, the freshman from Chino Hills, said. “I was always going to come to USC. It was my dream school.”
Before Okongwu and Mobley arrived this offseason as part of the Trojans’ most anticipated recruiting class in over a decade, top hoops recruits hadn’t spent much time dreaming about Troy. In six years under Andy Enfield, the Trojans have been to just two NCAA tournaments. The last time USC advanced past the Sweet 16, its two five-star freshmen weren’t even toddlers.
Now, as USC opens its season against Florida A&M on Tuesday, they’re the focal point of a class that many believe hope might turn the tide of Trojans basketball. Enfield insists that neither will be forced into an outsized role right away. But as USC hopes to turn a sub-par, sub-.500 finish in 2018 into a potentially program-defining season, its freshmen will have to rise to the occasion.
“We have a lot of expectations,” Okongwu said. “But it doesn’t faze us. It doesn’t faze me.”
Okongwu was the first to willingly accept that expectation, after all. The two-time Times player of the year committed to USC last May, following the plan he’d set years before. Just four days later, Mobley, whose father is now a Trojans assistant, took the same plunge.
The pair had already played together with Compton Magic, helping carry the AAU powerhouse to new heights. Over years spent in the same frontcourt, they came to know each other’s tendencies and understand each other on a different level.
Etop Udo-Ema, the founder of Compton Magic, believes that chemistry, combined with the sheer talent of both, could give USC one of the nation’s best frontcourts.
“The sky is the limit for those two guys,” Udo-Ema said. “If they get on a run and USC is playing really well, they’re both going to kill it.”
Mobley and Okongwu are among the few on USC’s roster to have actually played together prior to this season. The Trojans return just four players from last season’s 16-17 squad, the most substantial upheaval Enfield can remember in his coaching career.
Entering into his seventh season at USC, Enfield said he’s counting on that handful of returners, which includes likely starters Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Mathews and Elijah Weaver, to help establish an identity early on. He also expects to lean on sharpshooting grad transfers, Quinton Adlesh from Columbia and Daniel Utomi from Akron, both of whom have already proven deserving of sizable roles.
Altogether, Enfield said, it’s the most depth and versatility he’s ever had, with a rotation capable of 11-deep. But when it comes to five of those 11, Enfield plans to be cautious with his own expectations.
“We have a great freshman class,” Enfield said. “But early on in the season, we’re going to need to rely on those veterans more so than the freshman class.”
Since arriving at USC, that five-man class has spent every possible moment together. They live in the same apartment building, with Mobley and Okongwu in one room, Kyle Sturdivant across the hall, and Max Agbonkpolo and Ethan Anderson on the floor above. On a 10-day basketball trip through Europe earlier this summer, the group grew even closer.
“The bond we built, we’re going to have a real brotherhood,” Mobley said. “That’s going to take us far.”
It was the bond between Mobley and Okongwu which got it all started. Once they were both in the fold, the two top recruits turned their attention to recruiting Agbonkpolo, an athletic wing from Santa Margarita whom they’d played against for years. Sturdivant, who is from Georgia, followed his lead shortly after.
As soon as UNLV fired its coach, Mobley set to recruiting Anderson, the defending City Section player of the year, who had been committed to the Rebels. Mobley alerted the staff of his efforts, and soon, Anderson was in the fold too.
For Enfield and the Trojans, it was a serendipitous sequence of events which brought together a potentially program-defining class, ahead of a potentially program-defining season.
But for the two five-star freshmen who set it into motion, all had simply gone according to plan.
“I think we’re going to turn a lot of heads towards USC this year,” Mobley said.