LOS ANGELES — Vincent Iwuchukwu came back to the USC huddle fuming at nobody to himself, a mix of frustration and confusion pulsing from taut muscles, echoing a calm-down motion from wing Kobe Johnson.
Freshman guard Isaiah Collier was next to approach during this timeout late in the first half, chattering some encouragement into the sophomore big. Then senior guard Boogie Ellis. A rotating carousel of advice came from the only three dudes in red-and-gold who could score on this Sunday night, trying to galvanize Iwuchukwu, part of a rotating carousel of bigs who couldn’t buy a bucket for 20 straight minutes.
In a frustrating first half against Brown, following a frustrating loss to UC Irvine, USC’s bigs — or, really, everyone on the roster except the Johnson-Collier-Ellis perimeter trio — went a combined 0-for-9 from the floor. 0-for-9. Iwuchukwu, Kijani Wright and freshman Arrinten Page stumbled around the rim with the agility of an ancient Brontosaurus, centers of gravity knocked off by contact, and a 14-point lead quickly evaporated to a measly two points after a string of missed hooks at the end of the first half.
All inconsequential, ultimately, in this November non-conference game against a 1-4 Brown team lacking in firepower. A footnote in USC’s season, lost in the highlight-reel chemistry of Boogie Ellis and Isaiah Collier, the duo scoring 52 combined points to propel USC to an 81-70 win over the Bears.
But it’s plain this USC team has a size problem. Or, rather, a problem with players with size leveraging said size consistently. Enfield said Thursday that for bigs behind the returning Joshua Morgan to earn consistent rotational minutes, they’d need to “go to the boards every time on the offensive and defensive end” — and the Trojans’ coach continued to wave an array of Wright and Page and Iwuchukwu to the scorer’s table like a traffic controller.
What happens when Pac-12 play rolls around, and USC has to counter Arizona’s 7-foot-2 Motiejus Krivas? Or UCLA’s stalwart Adem Bona? Or Oregon force N’Faly Dante?
Iwuchukwu, for one, was much-improved in the second half; he started the frame, in an evident show of faith from Enfield, and rebounded and ran the floor hard, while Morgan skied for a number of major second-half rebounds. And as Brown’s shots began falling in the second half, the Trojans’ backcourt kept the tempo at USC’s pace. After Ellis was sorely missed in USC’s last game against UCI with injury, he attacked the cup and perimeter with confidence, burying a variety of step-back and catch-and-shoot triples.
Collier, meanwhile, played perhaps his best game yet as a Trojan. After dazzling through three games but seeming to struggle with the pace of the college game, committing 17 turnovers in three outings, he played with improved poise and decisiveness in dropping an efficient 24 points. His jumper, one of the only question marks in his profile, was silky on back-to-back threes in the first half; his touch was on display in the second, hop-stepping into the lane early in the period and absorbing contact for a double-clutch and-one layup.
“I’ve never played with a player like that,” forward DJ Rodman said in September. “Just someone who can get downhill, and can get whatever he wants.”
Nobody outside of Ellis or Collier was able to create consistent second-half offense, though, and staunch perimeter defense waned in the second. After Johnson flew around for several first-half deflections and blanketed Bears guard Kino Lilly Jr., the jitterbug whipped out a flamethrower in the second half, yo-yoing between his legs and burying a moonbeam over USC forward Harrison Hornery to cap off a run that tied the game at 66 with a few minutes remaining.
With a few seconds left and a 76-70 lead, a three from Ellis kissed the rim, bounced up to the glass, and fell home to ignite the Galen Center, the Trojans’ senior assassin effectively sending the Bears home. But this last two-game stretch leaves a sour taste.
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