Tro­jans have their high­est ex­pec­ta­tions in years, along with an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand

When Eli­jah Ste­wart and Jor­dan McLaugh­lin com­mit­ted to USC four years ago, the Tro­jans were closer to the bot­tom 10 in col­lege bas­ket­ball than the top 10. The team had won 11 games the sea­son be­fore they ar­rived. The pro­gram was in a dark place.

So a few days be­fore the pair be­gan their se­nior sea­sons — with USC now ranked No. 10 in the pre­sea­son As­so­ci­ated Press poll for the first time since 1974, with a team many ex­pect to com­pete for the Pac-12 Con­fer­ence ti­tle and with le­git­i­mate Fi­nal Four dreams — a reporter asked Ste­wart: Could he pos­si­bly have en­vi­sioned all of this?

Ste­wart leaned in, grabbed the reporter’s recorder and put it next to his mouth.

“Duhhh!” he said. “That’s why we came here, man. Ev­ery­one made fun of us. ‘Aw, you had all these other schools. Why did you go there?’ Peo­ple were mak­ing fun of me say­ing, ‘Loser, go­ing to USC.

You’re go­ing to lose there too.’

“Now, I’m not gonna throw names out there, but we had some peo­ple try­ing to trans­fer here that were say­ing I was crazy for com­ing here.”

Ste­wart, McLaugh­lin and the team­mates that fol­lowed them to USC find them­selves on the cusp of ful­fill­ing an un­likely vi­sion that be­gan four years ago. USC fi­nally has ex­pe­ri­ence. USC fi­nally has more tal­ent than it can jam onto the floor. Its big­gest bas­ket­ball­re­lated ques­tion this sea­son is a nice one: Are there enough play­ing time and scor­ing to keep ev­ery­one happy?

The specter of an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion tem­pers the start of an oth­er­wise giddy sea­son. A fed­eral grand jury in­dicted as­sis­tant coach Tony Bland on cor­rup­tion and bribery charges Tues­day and al­leged that he fa­cil­i­tated cash pay­ments to rel­a­tives of one cur­rent USC player and one re­cruit.

Coach Andy En­field did not say if ev­ery player would be avail­able or el­i­gi­ble to play when USC opens the sea­son against Cal State Fuller­ton on Fri­day.

“We have ev­ery­one prac­tic­ing right now,” he said this week.

Asked what that meant for the game, he said, “I can’t com­ment on any­thing re­gard­ing what you’re talk­ing about.”

USC has the depth to weather ros­ter dis­rup­tion. USC lost one schol­ar­ship player from last sea­son. For­wards Chimezie Metu and Ben­nie Boatwright spurned the NBA draft to re­turn. Both thought an ex­tra year would help their NBA stock, and they knew their re­turn could lift USC to rar­efied heights.

“I thought that we had a chance to be re­ally good this year and a chance to do some­thing spe­cial,” Metu said.

The pair makes a for­mi­da­ble front­court. Metu pro­vides rim pro­tec­tion and ath­leti­cism. Boatwright brings a mis­match-cre­at­ing com­bi­na­tion of size and skill.

USC’s back­court may be even more loaded. There is Ste­wart, a spring-footed three-point shooter. There are Jonah Mathews and De’An­thony Mel­ton, who en­joyed break­out fresh­man sea­sons, par­tic­u­larly on de­fense. USC will add two fresh­men, Charles O’Ban­non Jr. and Jor­dan Usher, who, in past USC sea­sons, might have played ma­jor min­utes early.

And USC adds point guard Der­ryck Thorn­ton, who started as a fresh­man for Duke two sea­sons ago be­fore trans­fer­ring.

It will be up to McLaugh­lin to keep ev­ery­one in­volved. Un­der En­field, USC has usu­ally en­joyed bal­anced scor­ing. This sea­son, USC may have too many weapons to sat­isfy ev­ery­one. For in­stance, the role of Shaqquan Aaron, a streaky wing who saw his play­ing time de­cline last sea­son, will be a ques­tion early.

McLaugh­lin said he and Thorn­ton will share point guard du­ties much as he and Ju­lian Ja­cobs did two sea­sons ago. McLaugh­lin said he knew of one way to quell dis­sen­sion over us­age.

“Just make sure we’re win­ning,” he said. “If we’re win­ning, it doesn’t mat­ter about stats.”

Ste­wart added that shoot­ers could have the lux­ury, and the obli­ga­tion, to be se­lec­tive. “If you shoot, you bet­ter make it,” he said. “We’re play­ing per­cent­ages this year.”

The Tro­jans find them­selves in an un­fa­mil­iar po­si­tion. They are ex­pected to com­pete for a Pac-12 cham­pi­onship, bat­tling Ari­zona and UCLA. In past sea­sons, USC did not have to con­tend with ex­pec­ta­tions. Play­ers used slights from poll­sters and pun­dits as fuel.

Last win­ter, Ste­wart de­scribed USC as “the Harry Pot­ter of the Pac-12,” crammed and for­got­ten un­der a metaphor­i­cal stair­case, just like the fic­tional wiz­ard.

Re­cently, he said the de­scrip­tion still fit. Ari­zona, he said, was like the se­ries’ vil­lain, Volde­mort, be­cause “peo­ple fear Volde­mort, peo­ple al­ways re­spect Ari­zona.” USC, he said, still fol­lows the hero’s arc.

“Harry Pot­ter got more re­spect as the [se­ries] went on,” he said. “It’s a Harry Pot­ter story. You started off, the hat didn’t know where to place you, just threw you up in a ran­dom house. And now you’re the king of the wiz­ards.”

Gary Coron­ado Los Angeles Times

POINT GUARD Jor­dan McLaugh­lin, who took a good deal of abuse from his friends when he de­cided to at­tend USC, is ex­cited about his se­nior sea­son.

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