By Manny Nunez
The USC Trojans have officially shown the Pac-12 conference that they will not be easy out anymore. After a solid 100-64 win over Lafayette Wednesday night, the Trojans are heading into conference play with their best start since the 2001-2002 season.
“It was nice to end on a break just before the Christmas holiday,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “Offensively we played to our potential and defensively we did enough to come through.”
Elijah Stewart and Katin Reinhardt combined with 53 points, while Stewart matched his career high with 27 points. Reinhardt and Stewart could not miss from beyond the arc as the pair went a combined 12-0f-18, ironically, six-for-nine each from three.
Trojans guard and second leading scorer Jordan McLaughlin finished the game with a school-record 16 assists, doubling his career high.
“It has been our point of emphasis to share the basketball and it worked tonight,” Enfield said. “When we moved the ball and reversed the ball we made some big plays. I was happy to see our perimeter players shoot very well. Our wing players did great managing the game and McLaughlin making the right plays.”
The balance on offense has been a major calling card in the Trojans’ pre-conference as six players averaged double figures with Reinhardt checking in at 13.8 per game and Elijah Stewart the sixth at 10.1 per outing. In addition, Enfield is seeing the offensive efficiency bourgeon with the up-tempo style as USC shoots 46.5 percent and averages 83.1 points per game while shooting at a 401 percent clip behind the arc.
“We are 11-2 right now and we expected to be here at this point,” McLaughlin said. “We are still undefeated at home and we certainly have been tested in a lot of games. We just have to keep getting better with so much adversity facing us.”
This has been the kind of style the Trojans have been playing with all season. With Stewart, McLaughlin, and Reinhardt complementing each other’s games, the chemistry and discipline is much different. Every player has a much different morale compared to last season, where they finished 4-16 in the Pac-12.
Their RPI has also shot up through the roof entering as the 28th strongest team. Expectations are becoming higher, and the team feels more than ready to take the next challenge, which is the opening of Pac-12 play as the journey to Washington State on New Year’s Day and across to Seattle for a date with the Washington Huskies on Jan 3.
“I am very comfortable with how our preseason went,” Enfield said. “We have three top-50 RPI’s wins and took Xavier to a challenge at the end. When we make a schedule you try to challenge them, but the Pac-12 has the top RPI in the nation with so many teams that can make or break your season. We have a lot of good teams coming up.”
Compared to last season, the Trojans have improved across the board. After 13 games, USC has shot better from consistently from the mid-range and the three-point line as the Trojans have doubled their three-point basket total, spread the ball more as they have increased their assist total, and are averaging just under 14 more points per game (81.7 compared to 68.2). In 11 of their wins, eight of them have been by more than ten points, whereas last season only three of their eight wins were of that stature. Half of the Trojans’ wins so far have been by 18 or more points, which has helped the team build confidence as Enfield builds the winning culture.
“Team morale and the trip overseas to Italy made a big difference,” Stewart said. “Our team has gotten closer together and we have played for ourselves and our teammates. We are still figuring out our roles but when we play each game we are now unifying just to we can play our best.”
After playing four games in a span of 10 days, all of which are at home, some much needed rest and relaxation comes in within eight days of rest before that Washington State on New Year’s Day.
“I think our experience will definitely help us,” McLaughlin said. “It was just our instability that couldn’t get us over that hump. This year with a year under us we feel like we have done enough so we can steal a few games when conference play starts. We do have to take things one game at a time. Everyone has a winning record from within. Any mistake can bring things back to earth, and we don’t want that.”