This season, USC basketball might field its most talented roster since Tim Floyd’s 2006-2007 Sweet Sixteen team that featured the likes of Nick Young and Taj Gibson. While it may not make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, USC could very well remain on the bubble for most of the season and could earn a middle seed like last year’s squad that finished .500 in Pac-12 play. However, this team has an extraordinary amount of young talent; its ceiling is limitless. The Men of Troy tip-off this pivotal season Friday night at 8 p.m. at the Galen Center against Montana.Coach Andy Enfield enters his fourth year with the reins of the program, and he has a team built for his electric run-and-gun style of play. USC’s success will hinge upon the ability of underclassmen to execute his gameplan by exhibiting superior athleticism, 3-point shooting and pace without fouling in abundance or allowing excessive offensive rebounds — both of which were problems that plagued last year’s squad. USC returns a core of three starters from last year’s team that set school records in 3-point baskets (266) and blocked shots (215). First, junior guard and captain Jordan McLaughlin returns after having led the team in points per game (13.4) and finishing second in assists per game (4.7). A lot of pressure weighs upon McLaughlin’s finally healthy shoulders. He spent the last two offseasons nursing shoulder injuries, but this summer, he played in Australia with other Pac-12 student-athletes and also found time to work at Nike.Junior guard Elijah Stewart (9.8 PPG), who led the team in 3-point shooting percentage (42.9 percent) should assume a starting role in the absence of Katin Reinhardt, who transferred to Marquette. As a recruit, Stewart was projected to become USC’s best guard, but inconsistent play during the last two seasons have left a lot of room for improvement. Despite USC’s impressive depth at guard, Stewart will have to play consistently better than last year if the team is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Finally, sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright, who averaged double-digits (11.5 PPG) and was the co-leader in 3-point baskets (60) also returns. At 6-foot-10, Boatwright played the three and the four last year, and he stretches the floor as well as anyone. However, to take his game to the next level this year and compensate for the loss of 6-foot-11 Nikola Jovanovic, Boatwright is going to have to defend the post, rebound and play more offense on the block. Though he lost a lot of this offseason to a hip injury, he recently got back to full strength and is in good spirits. “I feel like I’m a better player because of it,” he said. “I am working harder every day.”These three returners will most likely start on Friday night along with a fourth: Sophomore forward Chimezie Metu. Metu showed flashes of brilliance last season with his domineering blocks, sky-high dunks and polished 18-footer. However, he only scored in double-digits six times last year en route to averaging just 6.4 points per game. Foul trouble kept Metu on the bench in many games. Thus, he only averaged 18 minutes per game in Pac-12 play, and in that time, he managed to garner 4.5 fouls per game — a remarkable feat that must go unrepeated. As a sophomore, expect Metu to exhibit more discipline. He is also much stronger. The 6-foot-11 forward entered college weighing 205 pounds, but this season he will play at 220 pounds. USC’s final starter will probably be redshirt sophomore Shaqquan Aaron, the 6-foot-7 guard who redshirted last year after transferring from Louisville. Aaron adds length to the backcourt. He is a premier perimeter defender and a shot creator. Without Julian Jacobs, the team’s consummate playmaker a season ago, USC will rely upon Aaron to handle the ball occasionally and create opportunities. Charles Buggs, a graduate transfer from Minnesota, will likely be the first big man off the bench and a crucial replacement to fill the void left by the big shoes of Jovanovic. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Buggs can stretch the floor. He shot 31.9 percent from distance last season for the Golden Gophers, but worked on his shot this offseason. Buggs is recovering from knee surgery, so his minutes could be limited in pre-conference play. In June, USC landed a third transfer in guard Derryck Thornton of Duke — the highest-rated transfer in the nation. He will have to sit out this year, but his experience as a starter at one of college basketball’s top programs will hopefully pervade USC’s culture and inspire the team.Of the four freshmen, four-star recruits Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton should contribute immediately. Both are excellent spot-up shooters and athletic defenders. Last year, Mathews averaged 24.1 points per game for Santa Monica High, leading his team to the CIF Southern Section 1A title. Getting off to a hot start this season is of paramount importance to Mathews.“I want to come in a scorer and not be stagnant,” he said. “I want to set the tone as a freshman, looking forward to my next years here.” Meanwhile, Melton led Crespi High to back-to-back state championships while averaging 20.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. His versatility makes him a threat to enter the starting rotation even before conference play begins. Three-star recruits Nick Rakocevic and Harrison Henderson — 6-foot-11 and 6-foot-10, respectively — could see significant minutes pending Buggs’ and Boatwright’s health and Metu’s foul problems. Rakocevic, a Chicago Tribune First-Team All-State selection last year in Illinois, sports an intrepid post-game. The question is whether or not his moves will translate to this level before he gains more muscle. Henderson, a Texas implant, is yet another 3-point threat at Enfield’s disposal. He will be an option to stretch the floor if Boatwright has to play limited minutes due to injuries or fouls.This USC team is built to fly, and it just might. It has a precarious balance between youth and upperclassmen, raw athleticism and tailored craft, speed and size, but it has outstanding leadership in McLaughlin, Enfield and his staff.“Jordan is one of the best leaders I’ve been around in my life,” Mathews said. “He doesn’t get mad at us freshmen because he’s been there through the whole process. Now that it’s about to be game time, the freshman are acclimated, and we know what to do.” Despite the youth, Enfield does not underestimate the maturity and teamsmanship of this squad.“They understand the importance of every game,” he said after the team’s penultimate preseason practice. “We have a young, exciting team, and my message is to enjoy the moment, because this is what you work for your entire life and especially in the offseason.” When the season begins on Friday, nervous butterflies will flutter around the program as fans wait to see whether or not last year was a fluke or the harbinger of the Enfield era everyone wants to see: The one where “Slam City” becomes a household name, and the Trojans string together Pac-12 Championships and deep NCAA Tournament runs.
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