Despite losing its top two scorers from last season, including the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in NBA lottery pick Evan Mobley, the USC basketball team retains plenty of respect within the Pac-12 conference this year.
Coming off an Elite Eight appearance and 25-8 record, the Trojans were voted third in the conference’s preseason media poll behind UCLA and Oregon, it was announced Wednesday.
“The excitement around our program is at an all-time high since I’ve been the coach here, eight seasons,” USC coach Andy Enfield said during Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco.
In producing one-and-done NBA lottery picks each of the last two seasons, with Onyeka Okongwu and then Mobley, Enfield has gotten used to reshuffling his rotation and rebuilding his team identity from year to year.
And such is the task yet again.
With his older brother off to the NBA, as the No. 3 overall draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers, junior forward Isaiah Mobley (9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds per game last season) steps further into the spotlight this year.
Meanwhile, versatile guard Drew Peterson (9.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG), veteran wing Isaiah White (7.6 PPG), junior point guard Ethan Anderson (5.7 PPG) and forwards Chevez Goodwin (5.6 PPG) and Max Agbonkpolo (3.9 PPG) return from the rotation last year.
Freshmen guards Reese Dixon-Waters, who arrived mid-year last season and got some experience, and Malik Thomas and forwards Kobe Johnson and Harrison Hornery join the mix, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Boubacar Coulibaly and 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore Joshua Morgan could step into larger roles, while the headline newcomer is guard Boogie Ellis, a transfer from Memphis who averaged 10.2 points per game last season.
“We have the advantage of having some experience, guys who played in the Elite Eight. And Boogie Ellis joins us — he’s a dynamic guard, he’ll definitely help us, he’s a big-time scorer,” Enfield said. “We have a lot of versatility. We have a lot of lineups we could play, big or small, but our guards have to be good for us if we’re going to have a successful season.”
As for Isaiah Mobley, he was named one of 10 preseason first-team all-conference selections while Ellis was one of five second-team selections.
Mobley took his game to another level in the NCAA tournament last season, averaging 16 points over the Trojans’ four games and becoming a dangerous 3-point shooter. He didn’t really flash that part of his game until late in the year, but over the final six games, starting in the Pac-12 tourney, Mobley connected on 10 of 15 3s.
He tested the NBA waters before deciding to return for his junior season and will now be counted on as a focal point for the Trojans on both ends of the floor.
“I’ve just got to step up to the table,” he said. “Obviously our team was really good last year, so we’re trying to back that up and do it again, like coach said. Everybody’s role is expanding, including mine, and so far everyone looks ready for their role.”
There’s no question Enfield’s program has the most momentum it has had during his tenure — reflected both in recruiting and in on-court results. Replacing Evan Mobley and second-leading scorer Tahj Eaddy presents another challenge to him in that latter category, but the expectations remain high both internally and externally.
“We understand what it takes to win and we don’t take anything for granted,” Enfield said.