The one-man takeover was slow and methodical. A swatted shot. A put-back basket in traffic. A soaring lob along the baseline. Before long, Onyeka Okongwu had taken complete control on both ends in Pullman, Wash., last Thursday, dominating ill-equipped defenders and strapping an inconsistent USC offense on his back, as he so often has during a dynamic freshman season.
While the rest of the Trojans made only 11 shots combined in an ice-cold night at Washington State, Okongwu made 12 of his own on 14 attempts. In perhaps his finest performance yet, the former Chino Hills standout and two-time state player of the year finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocked shots, almost single-handedly willing the Trojans to victory in a Pac-12 Conference opener.
The game was a reminder not only of how far Okongwu could carry the Trojans, but also how desperately they need him to do so. As USC enters the thick of its Pac-12 schedule, beginning Saturday with a game against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, it has yet to find a reliable second scorer behind its dominant big man.
In the absence of one, the Trojans (12-3 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12) have had no choice but to rely heavily on Okongwu, whose response so far has more than sufficed. In the 14 games he’s played, Okongwu has seven double-doubles, while ranking among the top 10 in the Pac-12 in points, rebounds and blocks.
When Washington deployed its stifling zone defense three nights later, clogging the lane with a tangled mess of limbs, the downside of USC’s dependence became painfully clear. Okongwu had his worst game of the season — 10 points on 31% shooting — and the Trojans unraveled. USC shot 20% from the field and had 21 turnovers.
Midway through the first half, the Trojans trailed by only four points when senior forward Nick Rakocevic caught a pass at the elbow. Plenty of time remained for another scorer to emerge, and Rakocevic, a senior averaging nearly 12 points per game, seemed the most logical option.
A screen from Okongwu opened the lane, but as Rakocevic drove, lifting for an easy lay-in, he missed the hoop completely. The Trojans were outscored 54-26 from that point.
“Not one single player on our team played well offensively,” coach Andy Enfield said after the 72-40 loss.
Still, Enfield brushed away any suggestion that the blowout loss was indicative of larger issues with the offense. He listed seven players, including Rakocevic, who he felt were capable of stepping up as a scorer.
“Everybody can chip in,” Enfield said. “We win and lose as a team. The advantage we have is we have depth. But when that depth as a team doesn’t help out when some of the leading scorers aren’t playing as well or not shooting as well, then you have what happened Sunday night.”
As for their leading scorer, he shrugged off the notion that USC was asking too much of him.
“I don’t really believe in pressure,” said Okongwu, who is averaging 17.8 points a game. “We’re all great basketball players. I don’t think anything’s on my shoulders, honestly. I rely on my teammates, they rely on me.”
Nonetheless, the numbers paint a pretty one-sided picture. The Trojans are 1-3 when Okongwu shoots worse than 50% from the field, with the only victory coming in November against Nevada.
With Okongwu struggling in that victory, it was Rakocevic who carried the scoring load, with 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting. The senior forward was expected to play a vital role on offense this season, stretching defenses to open the paint for Okongwu. Since the Nevada game, Rakocevic has been wildly inconsistent, shooting 41% and scoring in double figures just four times over 11 games.
He’s not the only Trojan struggling to live up to expectations on offense. Isaiah Mobley arrived at USC last summer with similar hype to his five-star freshman counterpart, but Mobley broke his left foot in June and struggled to adjust.
The forward’s slow development has led to him averaging 8.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
“There’s frustration,” Mobley said Tuesday. “I have high expectations for myself, not even numbers-wise, just playing. There’s been moments of frustration, but also accomplishment. And without struggle, I don’t feel like I’d be getting better.”
For the Trojans to seriously compete in the Pac-12, they’ll need their offense to improve in a hurry. They currently rank last in the conference in turnovers, with 103 over their last six games. From the three-point line, they’ve made just two of their last 22 attempts.
Still, among the Trojans’ slumping scorers, there’s hope that this dismal stretch is only a blip. With its league-worst defense from behind the three-point line (opponents shoot 39% from long range), UCLA (8-7, 1-1) offers an ideal chance to bust that slump.
“We were hot before this, and we’re going to get back to it,” senior guard Jonah Mathews said. “We have a lot of shooters on our team.”