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USC Sports

USC hopes its struggling offense can get on track in Arizona

USC’s Ethan Anderson says “big changes” are coming to the Trojans’ offense ahead of Thursday’s game against Arizona.
USC’s Ethan Anderson says “big changes” are coming to the Trojans’ offense ahead of Thursday’s game against Arizona.
(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

The breakdowns began soon after tip-off last Thursday. Andy Enfield called one play, then another, and another, in hopes that USC could establish an early rhythm against Utah. But none of the coach’s calls were translating on the court.

The Trojans’ offense had gone rogue. Enfield wasn’t happy.

“They were just jacking stuff up,” he said shortly after USC eked out a 56-52 comeback win at home. “As a coach, it’s on me. I like to give my guys freedom to play. But if we have a couple play-calls, and you don’t run the plays in those possessions, then I have to get somebody else in the game that’s going to run the play.”

The execution didn’t get much smoother the rest of the weekend, as a stagnant USC offense was stomped by Colorado 78-57, leaving Enfield at a loss and the Trojans in a logjam atop the Pac-12 Conference.

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“When we’re bad, we’re bad,” the coach said, shrugging.

With a critical trip through Arizona ahead this week, USC (17-5 overall, 6-3) can’t afford to shrug past its offensive issues any longer.

No. 23 Arizona (15-6, 5-3) boasts the Pac-12’s top scoring offense and has lost just once on its home floor over 11 games this season. Arizona State (13-8, 4-4) has won three of its last four, including once against Arizona, and plays faster than any offense in the league. Neither is a soft landing spot for a team hard-pressed to score.

USC had a commitment from Bryce Young, the top-ranked quarterback, in the 2020 recruiting class. When Young flipped to Alabama, the Trojans’ backup plan crumbled.

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So before practice on Monday, the team sat down to study film of its offensive collapse. Enfield laid out a long list of fixes, a few of which had already been addressed this season.

The Trojans weren’t spacing the floor. They weren’t aggressive in transition. The guards weren’t moving the ball, the forwards and centers were standing around, and no one was doing much to get the ball to freshman Onyeka Okongwu in the post.

It wasn’t the first time they lost focus this season. After losing by 22 to Marquette in December, USC won its next seven, before a 72-40 loss at Washington. The Trojans won five of their next six before the loss to the Buffaloes. They haven’t lost consecutive games all season.

“We’ve been through this,” freshman point guard Ethan Anderson said. “I have no doubt in my mind that we can turn this around by Thursday.”

Anderson tried to shoulder the responsibility for that turnaround on Monday, promising “big changes” for the offense.

But it’s Okongwu who will need to bear the offensive burden, if the Trojans hope to bounce back. He was mostly ineffective against Colorado and Utah, as both teams aggressively fronted him in the post — a strategy that’s rewarded most opponents who tried it. Okongwu made seven combined shots in the last two games.

A healthy transition game should help open up the paint more for the 6-foot-9 freshman. In the halfcourt, the Trojans will need to move the ball around more, too, in hopes of manufacturing one-on-one chances for him around the basket.

Marty Blazer, an informant in the federal investigation into college basketball corruption that ensnared USC, is assisting the NCAA in its probe.
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“We’re not going to be able to just get the ball to Big O in the post,” Anderson said. “No team’s going to just sit there and let that happen. So we’re going to have to have five or six passes around, make somebody else attack, and they’ll have to leave Big O.”

When USC’s offense was last slumping, Enfield inserted Daniel Utomi in the starting lineup for Elijah Weaver, and the switch helped jump-start the offense. This time, Enfield said, there aren’t any such changes available.

“It’d be one thing if someone on the bench was playing great basketball, and it was like, wow, he deserves to start,” he said. “But that’s not the case.”

Instead, Enfield will count on the same lineup to iron out its issues on the road, where, oddly enough, the offense has been far more consistent. USC has lost just twice in true road games this season, after losing nine of 11 such games a year ago.

The Trojans have been consistent when visiting Arizona, but not in a good way. They have lost nine in a row in Tucson.

“If you go into Arizona and don’t play well,” Enfield said, “it’s going to be a long night.”

UP NEXT FOR USC: AT ARIZONA

When: Thursday, 6 p.m. PST.

Where: McKale Memorial Center, Tucson.

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On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 790.

Update: USC beat Arizona twice last season, 80-57 in the regular season and 78-65 in the Pac-12 tournament. The Trojans will have to contend with the freshman duo of Zeke Nnaji (16.2 points a game) and Nico Mannion (14.2), who both seem bound for the NBA draft.


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