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USC’s growth shows some of its potential as conference play beckons

December 22, 2014 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – As USC’s non-conference slate winds down, it becomes clear that this stretch has been one of growth for the young Trojans. There is much more to come, but what they have shown with one game left before Pac-12 play bodes well for this team to make a lot of progress, even if that doesn’t result in contention in the conference this season.

The word “potential” can be used a lot with this team given their composition, and their youth is one of the most salient features of the team in Andy Enfield’s second season at the helm. That’s not the worst thing in the world coming off a season where they went 2-16 in Pac-12 play. And while the Trojans had a 9-4 mark before conference play began last season and have a 7-4 mark now, they appear to be positioned for a better couple of months this time around.

USC came east and beat Boston College 75-71 on Sunday, holding off late charges by the Eagles and using a better second half to pull it out. They looked every bit the young team they are early, especially with 12 turnovers in the first half neutralizing their 69.6 percent shooting. They showed signs of their youth and signs of their potential all the same.

“I thought in the first half, we made shots, but we turned the ball over 12 times,” said Enfield. “We were very streaky in the first half, and defensively I thought we played poorly.”

You can imagine the potential of this team just from knowing they start two freshmen and three sophomores. You can imagine the potential from knowing that they have 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, with just three juniors and no seniors. But that only tells you so much.

You see the potential when you look at point guard Jordan McLaughlin and see that besides being very quick, he’s still a baby physically. You see it when you look at classmate Elijah Stewart and know he’ll get stronger and potentially have more games like the one on Sunday, where he scored 22 points by making all ten of his field goal attempts and had a career high by halftime. And when you see the progress of players like those two, you see the potential even more.

“Anytime you got 10-10 from the field, that’s a pretty special game,” Enfield said of Stewart. “It’s funny, he goes 10-10 from the field and he goes 0-4 from the foul line, you don’t see that too often. He had two blocked shots, he’s an NBA athlete, he’s learning. He did some things in today’s game he couldn’t do a month ago.”

You also see some of the potential when you see this team fall behind 10-4 early and then rebound to take the lead a short time after that. You see it when they shoot nearly 70 percent from the field in the first half. And you can see it when they bounce back in the second half. And you can see it when you notice that they won both of their true road games in non-conference, which may be a small sample size, but is what they had on the schedule.

All the while, though, you see where the room for growth is, too. You see it when they give the ball away 12 times in the half. You see it when they struggle to defend without fouling, leading to BC going to the line 11 times in the first half. You see it when they give BC chances late in the game with a turnover and a defensive breakdown on a shooter. And you saw it just over a week earlier when they couldn’t close out a game against Army that they lost in overtime.

They got better in both aspects in the second half, and once the grabbed the lead with an 8-0 run, they never relinquished it, though the Eagles got close a couple of times.

“It was nice to bounce back this quickly in our next game and be able to finish down the stretch, and make the plays necessary to win a big road game,” said Enfield.

The Pac-12 looks to have a pretty good group among its top teams, with Arizona, Washington, Utah and California all looking like potential NCAA Tournament teams, and cross-town rival UCLA and Stanford having enough talent to eventually get in that mix as well. USC is probably not going to crack that group, but the Trojans could knock off one of those teams later in the season if they keep growing.

The Trojans will begin Pac-12 play on the road at Utah and Colorado, so their time on the road to this point figures to serve them well. Their ability to overcome adversity will help as well, as there is bound to be some of that. If they continue the growth they have shown, they will start to show more of their potential and pick up some wins along the way. They may not contend this season, but they will put themselves in position to do that very soon as this young group matures.

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