Over the past three seasons, as a string of star 7-footers cycled through USC, there was no question about how Andy Enfield planned for his Trojans to play. With future NBA big men such as Evan Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu patrolling the paint, USC towered over nearly every team, dominating down low and deterring anyone who dared test them inside the arc.
But as Enfield opens his 10th season as USC coach Monday against his former team, Florida Gulf Coast, he’ll have no choice but to adjust that approach. After years of funneling offense through a super-sized frontcourt, USC is thinking smaller this season, with plans to rely more on four-guard lineups to spread the floor, pick up the pace and, most importantly, fire away from deep.
That approach isn’t exactly radical for college basketball. But it’s a significant stylistic departure for USC, which ranked among the slowest and least three-point-reliant teams in college basketball a season ago … and the season before that … and the season before that.
“This year, it’s totally different,” Enfield said. “You have to play to your strengths and make adjustments to your personnel. We’ll have to do that early in the season because we have a couple guys out, but also the strengths of our team are a little different now.”
Among those missing at the start are two freshman 7-footers, each of whom was expected to contribute in some fashion this season. Five-star prospect Vince Iwuchukwu remains sidelined after a scary summer incident in which he suffered sudden cardiac arrest and was hospitalized a few days. Russian import and 7-foot forward Iaroslav Niagu has sat out most of the preseason with an injury.
Niagu should return soon, Enfield said. But there’s no timetable yet for Iwuchukwu, the top-rated prospect in USC’s seventh-ranked recruiting class for 2023. Billed to be the next in line among star Trojan big men, Iwuchukwu will no doubt be handled with extreme caution — and multiple layers of medical clearance.
Still, Enfield said USC is “very hopeful” that the five-star will play this season.
“That progression that he’s in the process of, getting healthy and exercising and monitoring, is going on right now,” Enfield said, “and it’s going really well.”
Without either of its young 7-footers, USC must rely on its only returning big man, 6-11 forward Josh Morgan, as well as 6-9 freshman Kijani Wright, who, Enfield said, was USC’s most improved player during the preseason.
But the onus for offense begins in the backcourt.
“Our new offense definitely caters to the guards,” USC guard Boogie Ellis said. “It allows us to get up and down, get in transition, get in the gaps, get to the rim, advance the ball and get up the floor. And we shoot a lot more threes now. It’s going to be some fun basketball.”
Ellis will have a major hand in determining how well the USC offense can play. The 6-3 senior was inconsistent in his first season at USC, streaky from the perimeter and uneven in his ability to initiate the offense as point guard. So Ellis spent the summer working on his decision-making, focused on how to put teammates in the best positions.
He’ll have help in that department once again from Drew Peterson, a fellow preseason All-Pac-12 performer who returned to USC with “unfinished business” in mind, after his stellar effort last March fell just short in the Trojans’ first-round NCAA tournament loss.
“We need them both to play like first-team all-conference players if we’re going to be good this year,” Enfield said of Ellis and Peterson.
The most critical variable, however, might be what Enfield is able to get out of two four-star freshman guards, both of whom are expected to play major roles early on.
Oziyah Sellers emerged immediately this preseason as perhaps USC’s best sharpshooter, even leading the Trojans in scoring during a recent scrimmage. Tre White, at 6-7, has led USC in rebounding in recent weeks, Enfield said.
“They both bring something different to our team,” Enfield said. “Tre is a big guard that puts it on the floor, he rebounds it, and he can shoot it. He’s a very good passer off the move. And Oziyah is as good of a shooter as you’ll see.”
They’ll need both to play big minutes if USC hopes to succeed in its new small-ball approach. USC’s guards, for what it’s worth, are very much on board.
“It’s honestly a lot of fun,” Ellis said. “I feel like it’s going to be a great year.”