USC’s defense will be key to a successful basketball season

USC's Onyeka Okongwu and Jonah Mathews (2) try to slow down Florida A&M's Evins Desir during the Trojans' season-opening win Nov. 5 at Galen Center.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

The three-pointers went awry, the free throws were even worse and the ball moved around the court as if stuck in stop-and-start traffic. When USC needed to spark its offense Tuesday in the season opener against Florida A&M, the Trojans turned to their defense.

If they can help it, that will be a common theme this season.

“We’re going to pride ourselves on our defense this year,” USC coach Andy Enfield said after the Trojans’ 77-48 win.

Only four players return from last year’s team that missed the postseason and gave up 73 points per game. But as part of a top recruiting class, the Trojans (1-0) got a talented rim protector in 6-foot-9 freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who Enfield imagines could have an immediate impact like former All-Pac-12 performer Chimezie Metu.


Metu, who plays for the San Antonio Spurs’ G League affiliate, ranks seventh on USC’s all-time blocks list with 109.

Okongwu had a school record-tying eight blocks to go with 20 points and 13 rebounds in his college debut. Yet after the game, Enfield said Okongwu was one of the several post players who were playing “high school defense where he let the guy duck in a few times.”

Okongwu overcame the lapses against a physically overmatched Florida A&M team, but the freshman knows the size advantage he enjoyed in high school won’t last much longer at this level.


“Biggest adjustment was just getting used to the physicality,” Okongwu said. “We’re not playing against little kids now, we’re playing against grown men now.”

The Trojans, who host Portland on Friday, shot just 17.6% percent from three-point range and made one of nine free throws in the first half before settling down for a 13-for-14 effort from the line in the second half. Their defense was consistent, holding Florida A&M to 32.3% shooting and forcing 19 turnovers.

Okongwu’s longtime AAU teammate Isaiah Mobley, who had offseason foot surgery, adjusted slowly in his first game, but scored 17 points, all in the second half. The 6-foot-10 forward from Temecula Rancho Christian High scored his first points on a layup after blocking a shot, which sprung USC‘s offense into action.

A pair of freshmen aren’t being asked to lead the USC basketball to the NCAA tournament, they are taking charge of the Trojans, and they have big expectations.


“When we play hard defensively and get stops and rebounds, it makes it easier to go fast,” Mobley said.

While Okongwu and Mobley dominated the team’s scoring, Enfield also praised freshman point guards Ethan Anderson and Kyle Sturdivant, who combined for 11 assists and just two turnovers in their college debuts. Anderson started in place of senior Jonah Mathews, who was benched after being late to classes.

“They still make some freshman mistakes, but we are so happy with them,” Enfield said of Anderson and Sturdivant. “They’re both going to be terrific basketball players for our program, but they both have to keep developing quickly because we need them to win this year.”




When: 8 p.m.

Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 790.


Update: USC made only three of 17 three-point attempts against Florida A&M. Graduate transfers Daniel Utomi (Akron) and Quinton Adlesh (Columbia) were a combined one for six from three-point range.