USC travels far from home on Sunday, to play a true road game at Vanderbilt. It’s one of just two games this entire weekend featuring teams that both made the 2017 NCAA tournament (I see you, Bucknell at Maryland), and it promises to tell us a good deal about Andy Enfield’s team.
After all, you might have heard that this, finally, is USC’s time.
The Trojans entered 2017-18 ranked in the top 10 of the AP preseason poll for the first time in 43 years. Meaning the last time Southern Cal started a season with such high expectations, John Wooden was still the head coach of the crosstown rival school. It has been awhile.
Now, Enfield’s roster is No. 1 in major-conference basketball in terms of experience returning from last season. Or is it?
That distinction was based on the assumption that everyone would be back from last season with the exception of Charles Buggs (who was a senior). Sure enough, everyone’s back, but not everyone is in uniform.
For the time being, sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton remains a spectator. Melton’s eligibility is in question after Trojans associate head coach Tony Bland was indicted on charges including facilitating payments of $4,000 and $5,000 to the relatives and/or associates of two USC players.
Melton’s status might be in limbo, but Enfield still has his big three: Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu and Jordan McLaughlin. Boatwright, in particular, has been impressive at both ends of the floor in home wins against Cal State Fullerton and North Dakota State, averaging better than 20 points a game while also defending the rim with tenacity.
Maybe the 6-foot-10 junior is making up for lost time. Boatwright missed 17 games last season due to a one-two combination that began with back spasms and ended with a knee injury. Now, at last, he’s healthy, and his return is one factor that has the Trojans being spoken of in some quarters as a trendy Final Four pick.
Is such talk too much, too soon? More like let’s wait and see. For instance, one place where USC can show it’s for real in 2017-18 is the defensive glass. Enfield’s team was vulnerable there last season, and while that might not be a deal-breaker against a perimeter-oriented opponent like Vanderbilt, it will definitely be something to track in a Pac-12 co-headlined by Arizona and its 7-foot-1 freshman, Deandre Ayton.
Enfield was hired in 2013 to resuscitate a program that, on paper, has all the advantages. The Trojans are blessed with beautiful weather in the heart of a marquee metropolis that appeals to the college-aged and college-aged at heart the world over. More to the point, USC finds itself nestled amid some of the nation’s finest high-school basketball talent year in and year out.
Still, all of the above has been true for a really long time now, yet somehow no one has been able to make a go of it over the long haul at SC. Not Henry Bibby (who was 71-83 in conference play with the Trojans), not Tim Floyd (38-33) and, most recently, not Kevin O’Neill (21-37).
Enfield’s 24-48 in Pac-12 play after four seasons, but that mark includes a 5-31 hit of the programmatic reset button in his first two seasons. He’s 19-17 since then, and this season holds the promise of an honest to goodness Pac-12 title race with the aforementioned Wildcats.
If that promise is going to be realized, one way we’ll know it, early, is if USC can win a game on the home floor of a worthy but not necessarily unbeatable major-conference opponent two time zones and 2,000 miles away from the Galen Center. Is this USC’s moment?
The answers are about to begin.
Texas Tech vs. Boston College, Saturday, noon ET
The only other game of the weekend beside USC-Vanderbilt that will feature two major-conference teams, this will actually be a battle of the undefeateds. Fine, the Red Raiders and the Eagles are a combined 5-0. Still, both programs hope they’re on the rise. Chris Beard has started five seniors in each of Texas Tech’s first two games, so it’s fair to call Tommy Hamilton, Keenan Evans and the Raiders the polar demographic opposites of Kentucky. As for BC, fourth-year coach Jim Christian has what is likely a much-improved team compared to last season’s. The question will be whether the improvement is so vast that it can make itself felt in a rugged and deep ACC.
La Salle vs. Northwestern, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET
The Wildcats are coming off a 92-88 loss at “home” to Creighton. “Home” is in quotation marks because Chris Collins’ team is currently hosting opponents at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, while its true home, Welsh-Ryan Arena, undergoes renovation. In the loss to the Bluejays, Northwestern allowed the 6-foot-3 Khyri Thomas to score 24 points, a figure that included eight makes inside the arc. Now the Wildcats will face 6-foot-7 B.J. Johnson and the Explorers at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Princeton at Saint Joseph’s, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Princeton went after a challenging nonconference schedule, and look what it got the Tigers. Mitch Henderson’s team is 0-2, after losses on the road to Butler (by 10) and at home to BYU (by nine). Things got so heated in that second contest that Henderson was actually ejected from the game for the first time in his seven-year career. Here’s hoping the Princeton coach can keep a lid on his (now) legendary tempestuousness, because he’ll want to see this one. The Tigers could still win the Ivy, and host Saint Joe’s might still contend for the Atlantic 10 title. I say “might” because it’s hard to tell when you start the season with true road games at Toledo (11-point loss) and Illinois-Chicago (four-point victory in overtime). Freshman Taylor Funk has been filling it up for the Hawks.