Cal men’s basketball to start new year against scuffling, banged up USC

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Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years are not entities of nature as are the land and the sky, nor the fire and the sea. Time was created as a means of making sense of an otherwise chaotic existence, an attempt to make a semblance of structure that transcended the daily battle between the sun and moon for control of the heavens above.

While time may be nothing more than a construct for us mortal beings, it has long remained the system through which we understand the world. And in few other realms of human life does the finite resource of seconds and minutes matter more than in the glorious game of college basketball.

In the same manner that a ball clanking off iron serves as a fresh start for both the offense and defense, a new calendar year presents Cal men’s basketball with the endless possibilities of a blank slate and is the sage that cleanses negativity from the soul. Dangerously enough, the transition from 2018 to 2019 presents USC with the exact same opportunity.

Awaiting the Bears in the City of Angels are the Trojans, a ballclub that has free-falled from contender to pretender in a month’s time. The demise of USC, a team projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12, has resulted from a combination of injuries, underperformance and now, a mid-season transfer.

Kevin Porter Jr., a dynamic 6’6” guard from Seattle who many project to be a top 10 pick in next year’s draft, has missed the Trojans’ last five games with a quad contusion.

The injury, which he sustained against Missouri State on Nov. 20, was initially expected to sideline him one to two weeks, but Porter Jr. has still yet to play since a four-minute cameo against Nevada.

Excluding his brief appearance against the Wolf Pack, a game which counted against his averages, Porter Jr. averaged 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game. As of press time, it is unclear as to when the Trojans’ blue-chipper will return the floor.

While Porter Jr. may return to the hardwood sometime this season, Jordan Usher’s tenure as a Trojan has effectively come to an end.

A day after being indefinitely suspended for unspecified conduct issues, Usher tweeted that he would be transferring from the program.

“My sincere gratitude for the opportunity and support provided,” Usher wrote in the tweet. “I wish my teammates and coaches a successful remaining conference schedule.”

The departure of Usher, who averaged 8.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, combined with the injury of Porter Jr. has left the Trojans with a thin rotation.

In its 73-55 win over UC Davis, the first game that featured neither Porter Jr. nor Usher, head coach Andy Enfield leaned on Victor Uyaelunmo and J’Raan Brooks off the bench, who have played a combined 129 minutes this season.

Of more concern is the minutes distribution among the remaining core contributors. Against the Aggies, Bennie Boatwright, Jonah Mathews and Derryck Thornton all played at least 35 minutes. Elijah Weaver, Nick Rakocevic and Shaqquan Aaron played 29, 28 and 23 minutes, respectively. That’s not a sustainable distribution of minutes.

Even with the problems currently surrounding the Trojans, their talent alone gives them an opportunity on any given night. And against the Bears, they have a mismatch nightmare that could cause problems for Cal all night long.

As currently constructed, Cal is not equipped to handle USC’s frontcourt tandem of Boatwright and Rakocevic, especially if Connor Vanover is sidelined for a fourth straight game with a broken nose and concussion.

Boatwright has always flashed hints of becoming an All-Conference talent, but has never successfully put all of the pieces together. With a depleted roster that will need him to step up, however, conference play may finally see the Mission Hills product unlock his potential.

He’s certainly been showing off every weapon in his offensive armory as of late, averaging 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his last three games. More a stretch big than a post presence, Boatwright’s ability to knock down the three will pull Cal’s bigs away from the paint and create opportunities at the rim.

While Boatwright makes his money from multiple spots on the floor, Rakocevic is cut from the cloth of a traditional big man who does the dirty work. Whether it be his 19-point, 18-rebound performance against Vanderbilt or 18-point, 16-rebound outing in the season opener, the big man has been a stat sheet stuffer all season.

In 13 games this season, Rakocevic has totaled six double-doubles, tied with Zylan Cheatham for the most in the Pac-12, and is averaging 14.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.

Assuming the responsibility of guarding Boatwright and Rakocevic will likely be Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, as well as Justice Sueing or possibly even Roman Davis.

It’ll be tough enough to defend either Boatwright and Rakocevic, much less both of them. Cal is just coming off a game in which Seattle’s Myles Carter feasted all night long, totaling 26 points and 13 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end.

To make matters all the more difficult, Cal will have to deal with its other glaring weakness on the defensive end of the floor: three-point shooting.

Jonah Mathews, Shaqquan Aaron, Derryck Thornton and Elijah Weaver can all stroke it from downtown — the quartet has combined to hit 40.1 percent of their three-pointers. That doesn’t bode well for the Bears, the worst team at defending the three in the Pac-12.

The first 40 minutes of basketball in 2019 will be the foundation upon which the rest of the season is constructed. The entirety of last year is worth forgetting — best not waste time and make the latest collection of months count toward something great.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.