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USC opens men’s basketball season with rebuilt roster and plenty of optimism

USC coach Andy Enfield gestures during a game.
USC coach Andy Enfield hopes to guide the Trojans to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017 this season.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

USC opened its summer basketball workouts on tennis courts tucked behind the school’s baseball stadium. Between 95-degree heat, masks covering every coach’s face and individually marked balls for each player, it was it was a miserable but necessary way to start the year.

It’s what also makes Wednesday’s season-opening game at Galen Center against Cal Baptist at 6 p.m. that much sweeter.

“A lot of sacrifices have been made just to put us on the court during this COVID situation,” coach Andy Enfield said last week. “Of course, we’re going to try to compete for a Pac-12 championship and a national championship, just like we do every year, but this is a special and unique season. We want our players to hopefully appreciate that opportunity and go out and play like it.”

USC guard Drew Peterson was granted immediate eligibility to play for the Trojans this season after his transfer waiver was approved by the NCAA.

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With positive coronavirus test results spiking nationwide, the Trojans approach their eighth season under Enfield with optimism surrounding their rebuilt roster and caution concerning the state of the pandemic.

Teams can play up to 27 games, but Enfield recognized that is still just a hope considering the chaos COVID-19 has caused for college football schedules. After USC released a fraction of its schedule last week, the Pac-12 finalized a 20-game conference schedule Tuesday. USC’s nine-game pre-Christmas slate includes a cross-country trip to play in the Legends Classic in Connecticut, seemingly tempting fate when health officials are discouraging nonessential travel during the pandemic.

The extended offseason ends Wednesday with the long-awaited debut of freshman Evan Mobley. The 7-foot forward was the nation’s top recruit and is the highest ranked player to ever come to USC, where he joins his older brother Isaiah, a sophomore forward, and his father Eric, an assistant coach.

Even with a resume that includes the 2020 Morgan Wootten national player of the year award, McDonald’s All-American and two-time California Gatorade player of the year, the youngest Mobley still shocked teammates with his athleticism and play-making skills when he arrived. Weeks later, his emphatic blocks and powerful dunks had become so regular that they’re no longer highlight plays.

USC freshman Evan Mobley was a two-time California Gatorade Player of the Year at Temecula Rancho Christian.
(Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

“I really don’t even have to pay attention to where I throw the pass to him,” point guard Ethan Anderson said with a smirk. “Anywhere in his area, he’s able to come down with it and he’s able to finish.”

Anderson, a sophomore who averaged a team-high 4.2 assists with 5.5 points last year, is one of the three returners from a team that finished 22-9 and fourth in the Pac-12. This year, the Trojans were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll. They received one first-place vote.

With Evan and his 6-11 older brother leading the way, USC boasts one of the tallest rosters it has had under Enfield. The Trojans have seven players listed at 6-8 or taller, although 6-10 forward Joshua Morgan will sit out this season after transferring from Long Beach State. The length is why Enfield believes USC has the potential to improve on defense from last year despite losing rim protector Onyeka Okongwu, who was picked sixth in the NBA draft, and gritty senior guard Jonah Mathews.

Evan Mobley, the highest-ranked recruit ever to choose USC, is looking forward to playing alongside his brother and making big plays for the Trojans.

“If that becomes a focal point, an identity for our team, I think we can be a better defensive team this year than we were last year,” Enfield said, “but that’s only if our guys are tough as the players like Jonah Mathews.”

Mathews’ dramatic buzzer beater against UCLA last year provided a memorable moment to finish the season. The Trojans were likely headed to the NCAA tournament, which would have been their first berth since 2017. They haven’t advanced past the second round since 2007.

“We’re excited about our talent level and our roster,” Enfield said in October. “They have great chemistry and we have a lot of athleticism and size and length. But we just have to go prove it.”

USC's 2020-21 men's basketball roster.
(Thuc Nhi Nguyen / Los Angeles Times)


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