The timing could not have been worse for the USC Trojans men’s basketball program. Not that there is ever a good time to be caught in the midst of any sort of investigation involving the FBI, but the timing of this one just over a month in advance of USC’s most anticipated basketball season in school history was bad.
Back on September 26th, Assistant Coach Tony Bland was one of four college basketball coaches arrested in association with a widespread fraud and corruption scheme. According to Joon H. Kim, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the four coaches allegedly “accepted bribes to steer their players to certain financial advisers and/or business managers.” If true, this is a serious violation of both NCAA rules and federal law. Bland has since been placed on administrative leave while the Trojans are under FBI investigation.
Expectations High for USC Trojans Basketball Amid Bribery Scandal
USC has always been known as a ‘football school’ – a label that is not easy to shed. Head Coach Andy Enfield had been making great progress in that regard, and the Trojans appeared to finally be turning the corner. Returning all key members of the squad responsible for the program’s best-ever campaign a season ago, USC enters 2017-18 ranked 10th in the AP preseason poll. That happens to be the school’s highest preseason AP ranking in more than four decades.
But the scandal has curbed much of the hype surrounding what is otherwise believed to be among the best basketball teams the Trojans have ever had. Whether Enfield was involved or even aware of Bland’s alleged activities remains to be seen. Regardless, it is a bad look for both the program and the university which will hurt in more ways than one.
In the immediate future, players and coaches will be faced with answering questions and dealing with the uncertainty of the investigation on a daily basis. That will weigh on Enfield, who has enough on his plate already preparing his team for two games per week for the next five months. It has created an distraction with which the Trojans will have to cope as the new season gets underway.
In spite of the short run implications, the bigger issue for USC may be in the long term. Namely, it has weakened their position in attracting some of 2018’s best high school prospects, of which Enfield and company are in on many.
Fortunately, the Trojans have managed to limit the damage from a recruiting standpoint, at least thus far. Of their three prior four-star commitments, only one – forward J’Raan Brooks from Seattle – has de-committed since the news broke. The other two – Kevin Porter and Taeshon Cherry – have remained committed. Brooks stated in his explanation for his de-commitment that USC is “still very much a possibility” as he gains information and reassesses his alternatives.
Thank you to everyone at USC pic.twitter.com/pZzzQ0mh1n
— JBro™ (@JraanBrooks) October 13, 2017
The Trojans have also managed to land a commitment since then from four-star point guard Elijah Weaver, who affirmed he had chatted with Enfield and was assured that “they didn’t do anything crazy that will cost them sanctions or penalties”.
For the time being, it appears as though USC has dodged a major bullet, maintaining the fourth best 2018 recruiting class in the country at the time of writing. That will come as a sigh of relief for those close to the program who have seen its growth in recent years.
Since Enfield’s hiring in 2013, the Trojans have made strides recruiting some of America’s best high school talent to Southern California, and that has been reflected in the win column. USC put itself on the college basketball map a season ago with a program record 26 wins including two in the NCAA Tournament. But with all core players returning to the team and a number of new additions to the fold, expectations will be even higher in 2017-18.
USC’s marquee off-season addition was landing four-star shooting guard Charles O’Bannon Jr., who you might know better as the son of former Detroit Piston and UCLA standout Charles O’Bannon. But despite being recruited heavily by his pops’ alma mater, O’Bannon Jr. instead chose the Bruins biggest rival. Mark your calendars for February 3rd when USC and UCLA meet for the first time in Westwood.
Adding to the Trojans 2017 recruiting class is four-star swingman and Canton, Georgia native Jordan Usher. Usher provides further depth and athleticism on the wing, which has become an area of strength for USC with Elijah Stewart and Shaqquan Aaron also in the fray. Rounding out the Trojans incoming recruiting class is three-star center Victor Uyaelunmo, a seven-footer from Miami who will likely be seen as a longer-term project for Enfield and his staff.
The Trojans will also receive a boost from combo-guard Derryck Thornton, a former five-star recruit of Duke. Frustrated by his lack of opportunities with the Blue Devils, Thornton transferred to USC in 2016 but sat out last season due to transfer eligibility rules. The Findlay Prep graduate will now join the Trojans backcourt hoping to see an uptick in floor time in his remaining three seasons of NCAA eligibility.
Progression of Returning Core Players
Aside from the team’s new additions, the Trojans are also looking forward to the progression of three freshmen from last season who now enter their sophomore campaigns. De’Anthony Melton in particular will be an integral two-way stalwart. Sharpshooter Jonah Mathews and big man Nick Rakocevic will also be looking to build upon the sizable contributions made last season as true freshmen.
Ultimately, however, the Trojans success in 2017-18 will come down to a trio of upperclassmen who have comprised the team’s core and grown with the program over the past three seasons: Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu, and Bennie Boatwright. McLaughlin was recently named to the Bob Cousey Award watch list for the 2017-18 season, recognizing the nation’s top point guard. Metu was listed to the Oscar Robertson Trophy watch list for the USBWA’s national player of the year. Metu is also expected to be a mid-to-high first round pick in next June’s 2018 NBA Draft.
Looking Ahead to 2017-18
It is an exciting time for the Trojans basketball program, whose ranking as a top 10 team in the nation has brought with it lofty expectations. But although the buzz has been dampened somewhat by a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the ongoing FBI investigation, the Trojans focus must remain on what they can control on the basketball court. With excellent depth at all positions on the floor and a good mix of veteran leadership and younger talent, the pieces are in place for USC to vie for a Pac-12 title and do damage in March. It all starts Friday for the Trojans when they open up their 2017-18 non-conference schedule against CS Fullerton at the Galen Center.