Twelve minutes had already passed last Saturday, before Onyeka Okongwu caught a pass in the back line of the Pauley Pavilion and finally picked it up for his first shot of the night.
The first-year star student had been the USC offensive center throughout the season, marking the team with impressive 17 points per game. But a week earlier, the Washington area had limited it with pressure on the paint, and now, UCLA was replicating that aggressive defensive approach in man. They stuck the lane and put it in front of the pole, preventing it from touching the ball.
Okongwu took two quick fouls, minimizing his effectiveness against the Bruins. When he finally took that photo along the bottom line, it rose quite high over the edge. The UCLA student section roared with an immediate song of “AIRBALL!”.
The freshman would shoot only two more times and end up with only four points, a low season and only the second time he remained in single digits throughout the season.
The Trojans finally did not need a great Okongwu game to defeat the Bruins, as other scorers took the reins. Seniors Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Matthews combined for 33 points, while freshman Ethan Anderson led USC as his floor general from the start, adding 14 in the first half alone.
Their performances showed, in part, that the Trojans could stay afloat without their best freshman playing their best. But as the Trojans return this week to the Galen Center, where they will open their Pac-12 home against Cal and Stanford, getting back on track to Okongwu certainly could not harm USC and its consistently inconsistent offensive.
USC coach Andy Enfield still sees little cause for concern, even when Okongwu has contributed with only 14 combined in his last two games. Before that, against the state of Washington, Okongwu scored 27 in one of his best performances of the season.
“It’s very balanced,” Enfield said Wednesday. “Play as hard as you can. He has a great engine and is a team player. He doesn’t care how many points he scores. He won three state championships in high school. No one cared how many points he averaged. He is a winner. “
But in its last two games, Okongwu has certainly been less effective, which raises the question of whether other Pac-12 teams could replicate what UCLA and Washington did to limit it.
Cal (8-8, 2-1) does not have the same size and workforce below to follow exactly that plane. Where UCLA had three holders over 6 feet 9, Cal does not have one. But the Bears’ slow and half-court offensive under new coach Mark Fox could get Okongwu out of his early pace, especially if they can force him to have foul problems like the Bruins did.
“I really didn’t have enough time to be effective,” Okongwu said of last Saturday’s victory.
The most pressing concern comes this Saturday, when Stanford and his best league defender visit the USC. The Cardinal has forced turnovers in almost 25% of his possessions this season, a better rate than that of all but 11 teams in college basketball. Not to mention that they have a potential All-Pac-12 center in Oscar da Silva to face Okongwu.
A return home should help the freshman, and the rest of the Trojans, return to the form. USC has played only two real games at home since Thanksgiving, but still managed quite well along the way, with four wins on the road already, after scoring only two in the past season.
“We feel very good about the hardness of our team and our defense, how we were able to get on the road and defend ourselves at a high level,” said Enfield.
But it is the crime that remains a question mark. The easy answer, when USC starts its first stand at Pac-12, is to take the ball to its highest scorer.
“We are going to need [Okongwu] on the line, ”said Rakocevic. “Is a great player”.
When: 7:30 pm.
Where: Galen Center
In the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radius: 790
To update: Cal looked like one of the worst teams in the conference until December and early January, but it swept the Washington schools last weekend. The USC has played only two games at Galen Center since Thanksgiving, so the Trojans will welcome this two-game stand. The Trojans will need Onyeka Okongwu to recover after a quiet stretch of two games in which he scored only 14 in total.