The few glimpses had been transient, however breathtaking. A put-back dunk. A pick-and-roll layin. A fierce problem on the rim. All blips of a shiny future stretched over 14 minutes of a blowout win in Tempe.
Vince Iwuchukwu was nonetheless discovering his footing final Saturday, nonetheless working his method again to full power, six months after struggling cardiac arrest throughout a summer season exercise. The truth that the five-star freshman was enjoying in any respect at this level in USC’s season, given all he’d been by way of, was noteworthy. However by his fourth recreation again, as he scored 12 factors off the bench towards Arizona State, offering a spark on each ends of the courtroom, the implications of the 7-footer’s arrival for USC had develop into abundantly clear to anybody watching. Together with the rival coach throughout city.
“They are a different team now with Vince,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin mentioned of USC this week.
The Trojans could have the prospect to show as a lot Thursday, once they welcome No. 8 UCLA to Galen Heart, three weeks after their final assembly at Pauley Pavilion went right down to the wire. UCLA in the end escaped that outing with a late Jaylen Clark three-pointer, extending a successful streak that grew to 14 video games. USC, within the meantime, has received three of 4 since its livid second-half comeback fell brief within the first matchup, the Trojans lastly discovering their stride after an uneven begin to the season.
“We’ve really improved as a team,” USC coach Andy Enfield mentioned. “We’re playing much better offensively. Defensively, we’re still tough.”
And with Iwuchukwu, the Trojans could have lastly discovered what they’ve sorely been missing within the frontcourt. That disparity was on show within the first half of their first assembly, as USC was bullied on the boards and outmuscled by UCLA beneath. The lackluster begin led Enfield to bench common large man Josh Morgan and plug 6-10 stretch ahead Harrison Hornery in his place.
Now, USC has a five-star ahead rounding into type, opening up a world of prospects for its strategy to upending UCLA, which nonetheless holds a 1.5-game lead atop the Pac-12.
“When he steps into his full stride, that’s when you’re gonna see Vince be Vince,” freshman guard Tre White mentioned. “In practice, we see some crazy things out of Vince. When it translates onto the court, we’re gonna be used to it, but y’all gonna be shocked, for real.”
The Bruins boast their very own blue-chip freshman large man dealing with a vital level in his first collegiate season. Adem Bona has proven flashes of brilliance this season, blended with lapses of inconsistency, each of which made their presence identified in his first conflict with USC.
After Bona dominated the primary half, shutting down USC on the inside, Enfield’s transfer to make use of the 6-10 Hornery as a stretch 5 pressured Bona out of his consolation zone. He didn’t try a single shot within the second half, as UCLA managed a mere 4 factors within the paint after halftime.
“Last game, they were able to put Harry Hornery on him,” Cronin mentioned. “With Adem, it’s always, you know, trying to be aggressive with staying out of foul trouble on defense. On offense, we’ve got to throw the ball to him. When he’s open deep in the paint, we’ve got to do a better job of passing.”
One other star freshman for UCLA may be nearing a return, presumably as quickly as Thursday. Dynamic first-year guard Amari Bailey is “close,” Cronin mentioned Tuesday, after lacking the complete final month due to a lingering foot problem. The freshman averaged 9.5 factors, 3.3 rebounds and a pair of.3 assists over the season’s first 13 video games, establishing himself as a vital a part of the Bruins backcourt. As UCLA makes its case for a No. 1 seed within the coming weeks, he may play an necessary position.
USC continues to be within the early phases of integrating its personal star freshman. Iwuchukwu, who began underneath a strict minutes restriction, performed simply 14 and quarter-hour, respectively, in his final two outings after debuting the week earlier than towards Colorado. It’s unclear how for much longer he may have the ability to play towards UCLA — or how lengthy his minutes could proceed to be restricted.
“He’s certainly improved dramatically since the Colorado game,” Enfield mentioned. “So as he gets his timing back and gets in better shape, understands the speed of the game and gets his strength [back], you’ll see him keep improving.”
It’s an encouraging thought for USC, which finds itself tied for third place within the Pac-12, firmly among the many convention’s crowded second tier. Thursday marks a vital alternative to separate itself from that pack and add to its NCAA event resume. Whether or not it could possibly in all probability is determined by how shortly Iwuchukwu can develop in his position within the coming weeks.
His teammates have made clear how thrilled they’re with the tempo at which Iwuchukwu is progressing. However in hismind, his teammates say, the method hasn’t moved quick sufficient.
“He’s hard on himself,” White mentioned. “So in the locker room after games, he’s like ‘Damn, I could’ve done this, this, this.’ I’m like, ‘Bro, it takes a couple games to get used to college. I didn’t start cooking until a couple games in. Like, you’re doing great. You’re impacting the game.’
“Now he’s getting his feet under him. And the proof is in the pudding.”
White has seen firsthand how far Iwuchukwu has come since final July. He remembers vividly the day that his buddy collapsed on the courtroom. To look at him come this far, this shortly has lifted the entire group, he says.
“I’m always watching him now — the whole team is — just making sure he’s OK, off the court too. Because that’s a traumatic experience,” White mentioned. “And just to see him running up and down, being Vince, it’s what he’s here for. It’s crazy to see it come full circle.”