Cal men’s basketball to battle USC in first conference home matchup

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The Cal men’s basketball team (7-7) got a taste of what Pac-12 play has to offer this season, mounting a 17-point come-from-behind victory against rival Stanford to kick off conference play. Games won’t get any easier for the Bears, as they’ll kick off a brief, two-game homestand with a game against USC (10-5).

USC entered the season ranked No. 10 by the Associated Press, but the team lost its ranking in Week 6 after dropping three straight games to then-No. 16 Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma. Against the Aggies and Mustangs, the Trojans lost by 16 and 17 points, respectively.

Those three losses lit a fire under USC, as the team has played its best basketball of the season after the wake-up call. The Trojans are 6-2 in their last eight games, and their offense has been white-hot, averaging 86.6 points per game with an absurd shooting percentage of 52.3 percent during that span.

Leading the charge on offense for the Trojans has been junior forward Chimezie Metu, USC’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, who has averaged 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds on 60.6 percent shooting from the field during those eight games. Metu has dabbled with the 3-pointer this season, and he’s shot especially well during this stretch, hitting six of 11 from deep.

The junior’s numbers could have been even better if not for his ejection from the team’s latest game against Washington State. As the Cougars’ sophomore Carter Skaggs landed after attempting a jump shot, Metu hit Skaggs in the groin and was handed a flagrant two foul. The junior was stripped of his captaincy, and head coach Andy Enfield will sit Metu for the first half against Cal.

With Metu out for the first half of basketball against the Bears, the Trojans will likely rely on junior forward Bennie Boatwright, the team’s second-leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker behind Metu. This season, Boatwright is posting career highs in points (16.8), rebounds (7.0), assists per game (2.3) and shooting percentage (44.9 percent).

While his partner in crime operates down low, Boatwright plays the stretch-four role; in his three seasons with the Trojans, the junior shoots six 3-pointers per game on average and knocks them down at a career clip of 35.9 percent. If Boatwright continues to knock down triples at his current rate, he’ll eclipse his previous career high in total 3-pointers made in a season.

Along with Boatwright, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin will have to shoulder more of the load on offense during the first half. Since his freshman year, McLaughlin has continued to evolve as a playmaker, taking fewer shot attempts per game and lowering his usage rate but averaging more assists per game in every subsequent season.

McLaughlin’s evolution as a point guard has culminated in his final season, as he has jumped from 5.5 assists as a junior to 8.0 assists as a senior, a total that leads the Pac-12 by a wide margin.

The leap in McLaughlin’s assists hasn’t come at the cost of his efficiency. McLaughlin is technically averaging a career high in turnovers per game (2.7) in his final go-round with USC, though he is only a couple ticks higher than his career average (2.4). The Trojans’ point guard is also knocking down a career-high 47.6 percent of shots from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.

McLaughlin will arrive at Haas Pavilion riding a bit of a cold spell. While he did post a double-double against Washington State, McLaughlin has put up figures below his season averages in the past five games, the most notable being 3.6 turnovers per game and a field goal percentage of 41.5 percent. The senior has also posted his only two games with at least five turnovers in a game during this stretch.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510