January 17, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Long break is almost over for Trojans

Just three days after graduating early from high school, a newly eligible Reese Waters arrived at Galen Center on Dec. 12 for his first collegiate practice. His first foray was just a light walkthrough, ahead of USC’s Pac-12 opener against Stanford. But to officially welcome their new guard to the team, Trojans coach Andy Enfield let Waters take the final free throw to close practice.

Turns out, it would be the last shot any Trojan took in practice for another two weeks. A positive confirmed coronavirus test the following day led USC to pause all team activities, postpone its game against Stanford that afternoon, cancel two more nonconference games, and force the entire team into a two-week quarantine.

“It was a very unusual welcome,” Enfield said.

The Trojans were already at the arena, a few hours before the game, when they received the news that their season had been upended. Before that, they hadn’t had a single positive test.

“Then, all of a sudden, we were shut down for two weeks,” Enfield said.

The shutdown effectively mitigated an outbreak, with zero additional cases stemming from the initial positive test. But with USC finally welcomed back to full practice Monday, one day ahead of a newly scheduled meeting with 6-1 Santa Clara, that layoff could leave its entire retooled roster in a precarious position as Pac-12 play opens Thursday.

Six of USC’s top eight scorers through five games weren’t on the team a year ago. One of those returners, point guard Ethan Anderson, didn’t play in the last two games while dealing with a back injury. And everyone else hasn’t played since Dec. 8, when USC routed UC Irvine by 35 points in a performance Enfield called the team’s most complete yet.

But that was three weeks ago. Where that chemistry stands now is anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know how well we’ll play or not play,” Enfield said Monday, “but we’re going to try and play as hard as we can. If there’s a little rustiness, we’ll have to work through it.”

For the first week of quarantine, USC wasn’t able to work through much of anything as players were isolated. By the second week, state and county rules allowed for players to come into the gym individually to get some shots up. Sunday marked the first day the team was able to congregate, after all were cleared by another round of testing.

What awaits them now could be one of the toughest tests of the season. Already, they’ve had to readjust plans, after COVID-19 issues forced Loyola Marymount to withdraw from its originally slated matchup. Santa Clara, which has already had three games canceled this season, agreed to step in on short notice. Then, by Thursday, USC will have to hope its found its bearings when Colorado comes to town to open Pac-12 play.

The continued development of star freshman Evan Mobley will be especially crucial through this stretch as USC returns from its two-week hiatus. His 17.6 points per game paced the team and rank fourth in the conference, while his presence protecting the post has him leading the conference in blocks per game (3.0).

“He’s a talented young man, very intelligent young player, and he plays really hard,” Enfield said of Mobley. “We just have to ramp back up now, including Evan.”

The imminent return of Anderson should help speed up that process, especially if the sophomore point guard can play Thursday. Enfield said on Monday that Anderson remained “day to day” and would be evaluated before Tuesday’s game.

Without him, USC could find itself again drastically short in the backcourt. And while that may seem like an ideal position for Waters to make his debut, Enfield cautioned against rushing his early enrollee.

“He’s got a big learning curve,” Enfield said. “But he’s a talented young man, and we expect him to help us.”