USC basketball finally has a place to practice. Can Trojans make up for lost time?
Andy Enfield was sweating through a mask in punishing August heat, standing on a tennis court and handling a basketball with gloves. The USC coach’s colleagues called, amazed at his team’s circumstances. The Trojans couldn’t get in their gym? We’ve been playing five-on-five indoors since July, other college coaches told him.
It’s no matter to Enfield.
“We’re at a disadvantage, there’s no question,” the eighth-year coach said during a videoconference Friday, “but by Nov. 25 no one’s going to care about that.”
With one week of practice down, the Trojans have one more month left to polish their new-look roster. The team, cleared by public health regulations to start full, indoor practices Oct. 14, returns just three significant contributors from last season’s squad that tied for third in the Pac-12.
Returning to the gym provided excitement and much-needed normalcy, although it’s not status quo. The lack of familiarity between players makes it feel like the first week of summer workouts. The calendar offers a swift reality check.
The conference hasn’t finalized the 20-game schedule, although Enfield knows the Trojans will open at home on Nov. 25, and play the following week in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Connecticut, where teams will form an unofficial bubble to play nonconference games. Enfield said the Trojans have Brigham Young, Connecticut and Vanderbilt in their tournament pod.
The Mohegan Sun has teamed up with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Gazelle Group to stage early season college basketball tournaments.
Hoping to make up for lost time, the Trojans tried to work outdoors during the summer. They weren’t particularly productive training sessions. Players, unable to pass to their teammates, had their own ball with their name on it and they chased down their own rebounds before getting back in the layup line.
It was 95 degrees and they practiced on tennis courts behind the baseball stadium. Enfield had never been to that part of campus before.
But the players were “good sports” about the conditions, Enfield said. The team endured the circumstances to start developing chemistry any way possible.
“We’re just trying to make sure all the guys are up to speed,” said sophomore Isaiah Mobley, whose 6.2 points per game last year make him USC’s leading returning scorer. “We kind of started late being in L.A. with COVID and all that stuff so we’re just trying to make sure that everyone’s on the same page, they know our principles offensively and defensively and give us the best shot to be successful this season.”
Mobley already is connected with one of his new teammates in particular: his younger brother Evan. The freshman was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the nation. Isaiah looks forward to showing how well the brothers play together after a lifetime of sharing the court.
Evan Mobley seems to surprise Enfield every day. The 7-foot forward is always doing something no one on USC or any of its opponents last year can do.
Receiver Munir McClain, who got money from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, was suspended and his family says they weren’t given an answer as to why.
“It’s fun to watch some of those spectacular plays,” Enfield said. “But he’s a developing player, he’s working on his skill-sets, his strength, his defense and also learning how to score in different positions on the court.”
Enfield called Evan an “elite shot blocker.” The Trojans need that as star freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who averaged 2.7 blocks per game, declared for the NBA draft.
With Okongwu anchoring the defense, conference opponents shot 37.8% from the field against USC last year, the best defensive mark in the Pac-12, with 64.3 points allowed per game, also tops in the conference.
With seven players who are 6-8 or taller, Enfield has his biggest team yet at USC, but the expectations on defense are even bigger.
“We will be really good defensively because of our size and length and our toughness,” Enfield said, “but we just have to find a nice consistency offensively and defensively with a group that’s never played together.”
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