No. 20 USC men’s basketball opens Pac-12 play vs. Utah

USC men’s basketball, along with the rest of the Pac-12, is getting an early start on conference play this week.

With the league expanding to a 20-game conference schedule last year, the Trojans will open against Utah and at Washington State this week before returning to less familiar foes next week.

Usually, teams don’t want to play games that determine conference standings this early in the season. There are wrinkles to iron out in how to play on both offense and defense, before the games start to determine Pac-12 tournament seeding.

But the Trojans feel pretty good about where they stand ahead of Wednesday’s home game against the Utes (5-1).

At 6-0, USC is off to its best start to a season since it won 14 in a row to open the 2016-17 campaign. Last weekend’s smothering win over San Diego State vaulted the Trojans up four spots in the AP Top 25 to No. 20 in the country.

USC’s confidence is so high that, after the win over the Aztecs, head coach Andy Enfield couldn’t keep the derision out of his voice when asked if his team was ready for Pac-12 play.

“Well, our team’s 53-17 the last two years,” Enfield responded, “so I’d say yes.”

A large basis of the Trojans’ swagger this year comes from the same place it has for most of Enfield’s nine-year tenure: on the defensive side of the court.

USC is currently second in the Pac-12 in points per game allowed (58.3) and seventh nationally in opponent field-goal percentage (34.4%). Opponents are shooting 24.8% from 3-point range against USC and averaging 10.8 turnovers per game.

The Aztecs were USC’s greatest test of this young season, the only opponent the Trojans have played that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago. But USC held SDSU to 43 points on 32.1% shooting and 17.6% from 3-point range. The Trojans’ length forced San Diego State out of the paint and to take tough mid-range shots.

“We expect this out of our players. If you don’t defend, you don’t play. You have to play hard and you play defense,” Enfield said. “We forgive you for missing free throws or turning the ball over or missing a couple shots here or there. We let our guys play through mistakes on the offensive end. But we don’t let them play through many mistakes on the defensive end.”

The early success is in part due to building off last season’s success. Entering 2020-21, the Trojans had three returning players and a lot of pieces that were learning Enfield’s systems on the fly.

The Trojans this season returned most of the core from their Elite Eight run, and the early results are showing the benefit of that cohesion and understanding. Bigs like Isaiah Mobley, Chevez Goodwin and Joshua Morgan are patrolling the paint. After being a liability on defense last season, Drew Peterson was trusted with the opponent’s best scorer against SDSU and Saint Joseph’s.

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