The first game nerves and sloppiness were evident when the USC men’s basketball team kicked off their season against Florida A&M at the Galen Center. After a first half in which the entire team was incapable of making a jumper, the Trojans were able to find a rhythm on offense in the second half and pull away to win this one handily. Working off a record tying 8 block, 20 point, 13 rebound performance by 5-star freshman Onyeka Okongwu in his debut, the Trojans managed to beat an outmatched Rattler squad despite struggling in several key areas. Here’s how it all went down:
In an extremely surprising move, Coach Andy Enfield started unheralded 3-star guard Ethan Anderson over senior captain Jonah Matthews in the backcourt. After his stellar performance against Villanova in their exhibition match, Anderson’s potential was obvious but starting him over the veteran sharpshooter Matthews was definitely unexpected. He joined the 4 returning starters from that Villanova exhibition, with guard Elijah Weaver and the supersized frontcourt of freshmen Isiaih Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu alongside senior Nick Rakocevic. The Trojans came out shooting ice cold against A&M, starting the game 3-13 from the field, 0-3 from 3 and 0-4 from the free throw line despite open looks on a majority of their shots. A&M came out denying the post and crowding the paint to make up for the significant size advantage of the USC bigs. This generated open looks from the perimeter that the Trojans could not get to fall.
On the other side of the floor, Okongwu set the tone early — getting 2 blocks on the same possession early in the game. His athleticism and lighting quick second jump were the lone bright spot for the Trojans in the first half, dominating both the offensive and defensive boards while swatting 6 shots before the break. Coach Enfield went to his subs early and often, making adjustments frequently throughout the first. After going down 10-6 early, Enfield called a timeout and went to a super small lineup with Mobley at center and a 4 guard lineup of graduate transfers Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh alongside Weaver and Matthews. This quick and floor spacing lineup helped invigorate the offense, leading to a pair of and-1 layups and aggressive drives by Jonah Matthews and Elijah Weaver respectively.
Interestingly, the Trojans also mixed in some full court press with some success — with Quinton Adlesh ripping a steal for an easy layup. USC’s offense stayed quiet for the remainder of the half, continuing to clank 3’s and free throws to the tune of 33% shooting in the half while going an abysmal 1-9 from the line. The lone highlights in the half came from Okongwu in what was an absolutely dominant debut game. On one play he went into a dead sprint from the paint to the 3-pt line to close out and swat a wide open A&M shooter. Less than a minute later the freshman jumped over his defender and snagged an offensive rebound — like Randy Moss going up for a jump ball — before throwing down a ferocious slam dunk. Despite his stellar individual play with 8 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 blocks in the half USC only led Florida A&M 24-23.
Fortunately it was a tail of 2 halves for the Trojans, as their offense finally hit its stride in the second period while the defense continued to lock up A&M. The Trojans upped the pace of their offense and started attacking the paint and post ups more aggressively. After putting up a donut in the scoring category in the first half, Isaih Mobley caught fire in the 2nd half — putting up 17 points after the break. Mobley had a number of highlight plays in his own right, grabbing a rebound and going coast-to-coast after putting his head down for an and-1 layup. Additionally, he demonstrated his range by hitting a smooth pull-up 3. He also did well to get to the line, taking 10 free throws but only converting 6. Okongwu continued his absolutely dominant game, putting up another 12 points while breaking a USC school record with 8 blocks in his very first game. The freshman connection between Okongwu and Ethan Anderson was also apparent, with 3 completed alley-oops establishing their superb chemistry.
The defense also continued its excellent play from the Villanova exhibition, holding Florida to 48 points on 32% shooting while forcing 18 turnovers. The switch everything defensive scheme that Coach Enfield has employed continued to find success while Okongwu absolutely locked down the paint. Despite the excellent freshman debuts, issues with free throw shooting — improved in the 2nd half but still an atrocious 61% as a team, turnovers (17 total, many of which in transition), and foul trouble (Nick Rakocevic continued his foul issues by fouling out in only 13 minutes) will be major issues that the Trojans will have to improve quickly. The nerves and excited energy were evident in this first game, but the talent of this roster and these freshmen continue to provide great optimism for the rest of the season.