LOS ANGELES — Roster construction and medical issues forced the USC men’s basketball team to adopt a new style over the offseason. After years of being built around the post, the Trojans would go with a four-guard lineup with one big man patrolling the paint.
The hope was that this new style would allow the Trojans to play a more modern brand of basketball, running up and down the court and wearing opponents out with their tempo.
But after a stunning 74-61 defeat at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast in the season opener on Monday night, it’s clear this was more a tear-down job than a quick fixer-upper.
“We have to be better,” head coach Andy Enfield said after losing to his former team to start his 10th season at USC. “I take the blame for this one. I thought we were prepared to play tonight, and didn’t look like it, so that’s on me.”
We could go over a detailed play-by-play of how this game was lost. But the simple explanation is that the high-flying offense USC hoped would propel it to wins simply disappeared midway through the first half.
After an 8-for-12 start from the field, USC followed with a 4-for-19 stretch that extended into the second half. As Florida Gulf Coast was building an 18-point lead, USC went more than eight minutes without a field goal.
The Trojans did manage an 11-0 run to cut the deficit to single digits with 1:03 left, but they were far too late in their efforts.
“Honestly, I feel like this game, we didn’t play that [fast-paced] style,” guard Boogie Ellis said. “We kinda got away from that, especially a lot of the big guys were out-running their big guys in transition and we didn’t reward them.”
USC finished the game 21 for 52 from the floor and 3 for 19 from 3-point range. The Trojans were turned the ball over 15 times, and were out-rebounded by 11.
“There’s not a lot of margin for error for our team because of our lack of size,” Enfield said. “But we have big enough guards and they just have to be tougher and play better. And starting tomorrow they will be or they just won’t be playing as much.”
The Trojans showed off their new instinct to run early. Every defensive rebound and steal was followed by USC pushing the ball up the court. Sometimes the results weren’t great, like an Ellis layup off the side of the rim or Drew Peterson dribbling the ball off of his leg, but the new style was on display.
And as USC built a 21-10 lead, there were some glimmers of hope. Peterson’s flip to Kobe Johnson for a layup was a playful move, as was his post-up bounce pass to Kijani Wright for a dunk.
And Josh Morgan lived up to his end of the new normal with a career-high seven blocked shots, one short of the USC single-game record.
But when FGCU adjusted to the pace of the game, USC quickly found itself out of tricks. The Eagles went on a 12-1 run to tie the score as USC went 1 for 10 from the floor with seven missed 3-pointers in that stretch. The Trojans let the ball stick and settled for one-on-one looks rather than moving the ball around.
The 3-point shooting is a larger concern for the Trojans moving forward.
For this new four-guard, fast-tempo system to work, USC has to be able to make 3-pointers. Whether it’s drive-and-kicks in half-court sets or finding the open man in transition, USC has to reliably make its shots to be successful.
Instead, USC missed 14 consecutive attempts from 3-point range after Ellis made the first of the game. After the halftime layup line, USC players spent the rest of their time working on their distance shots, but USC missed its first three of the second half before Ellis finally ended the streak, when USC was already trailing by 20.
“We’re going to take a lot from this game and better believe we’ll be ready Thursday [against South Alabama],” Peterson said.