Looking Ahead: USC caught by its own success

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. During the next few weeks, we will give you a peek of what’s ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: USC.

Other than a really great book, a Catch-22 is defined as a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

For the 2016-17 college basketball season, we will define it as the University of Southern California. To get better, the Trojans needed more talented players, but once Andy Enfield got those more talented players, he ran the risk of losing them. So the good news is USC had two players declare for the NBA draft early.

And that’s also the bad news.

Whether Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic made wise decisions or not will be determined later this month (neither was invited to the NBA combine), and folks are welcome to wax philosophic or argue until then. There is, however, no arguing the impact on USC — it’s huge.

A year after finally breaking through and back into relevancy, USC is essentially starting over. It’s not from scratch, as good players beget other good players, and Enfield will welcome a good recruiting class to campus, but it’s much more of a reboot than anyone expected.

If Jovanovic and Jacobs had stuck around, keeping their respective 12.1 and 11.6 points per game in college, USC would have been a serious threat in the Pac-12. A year ago, the Trojans finished 21-13, made their first NCAA tournament in five years and earned their first AP top 25 votes since 2008. Even a rash of transfers — Katin Reinhardt, Malik Marquetti, Darion Clark and Malik Martin — merely dented, instead of destroyed, the expectations for the Trojans.

But that was then. This is reality. Jovanovic and Jacobs are officially gone and Enfield, who just received a contract extension, has more work to do.

Let’s start with the good news. Leading scorer and 3-point threat Jordan McLaughlin is returning and his backcourt running mate, Elijah Stewart, who averaged 9.8 points per game, is there to help, as is Shaqquan Aaron. Aaron, who transferred from Louisville, struggled to earn playing time for the Cardinals but was once a highly-regarded recruit out of Seattle.

Now for the trickier part. Jovanovic was USC’s most reliable post player and Enfield will need previous role players to produce more to replace him. The call will go out first to Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright. Boatwright had a strong freshman season, averaging 11.5 points and 5.2 boards and much will be expected of him.

The same can be said for the Trojans’ freshman class. Much already was expected of the group rated 31st in the country, but now, with so many holes to be filled and minutes to be had, the rookies will need to be ready. The biggest prize in the class is Jonah Mathews, younger brother of Cal’s Jordan Mathews. The ESPN 100 guard is a terrific scorer and should be able to help McLaughlin on the perimeter. Jonah Mathews, however, is the given. It’s the others — De’Anthony Melton, Harrison Henderson and Nick Rakocevic who will have to do even more. Melton is a defensive specialist who can essentially guard every position on the floor, and the kind of player who does everything well. He’ll need to. Henderson is a three-star power forward who can score inside and out. Rakocevic can really stretch the floor.

There’s no doubt none of the freshmen thought they’d have to carry so much of the load for USC this season, and understandably might have believed they would be afforded a few growing pains.

But when a team gets good in a hurry, things can change just as quickly.

And that is the reality for USC in 2016-17.

The Catch-22, if you will.

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