Vince Iwuchukwu's first start can't fix USC's frontcourt woes in win over Washington

Southern California forward VIncent Iwuchukwu (3) works for a rebound between Washington center Braxton Meah.
USC forward Vince Iwuchukwu grabs a rebound between Washington center Braxton Meah (34) and guard Keyon Menifield (23) during the second half of the Trojans' 80-74 win Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Seven months ago, Vince Iwuchukwu sat waiting in a hospital bed, wondering through welled-up tears if he’d play basketball again. The talented 7-footer was slated to step in as USC’s heir apparent at center but an episode of sudden cardiac arrest last summer left that future in doubt, delaying the figurative torch-passing until Saturday, when Iwuchukwu emerged from the sideline for the first time with USC’s starters, trotting to the tipoff as if he’d belonged there all along.

The less poetic truth was he’d been elevated Saturday night out of necessity. An ankle injury forced starting center Josh Morgan out of the lineup, leaving the Trojans down to the freshman and a few reserves in the frontcourt, none of whom had contributed more than a handful of minutes in a handful of games.

The consequences of that arrangement became clear early on against Washington, even as the Trojans fought to an 80-74 victory, their sixth in seven tries.

They needed a career-best effort from freshman Tre White and another stellar showing on both ends from sophomore Kobe Johnson to make it happen. Both finished with career highs in scoring Saturday as they dragged the Trojans to a weekend sweep. White put up 22, adding eight rebounds, while Johnson scored a career high of 21, adding five assists and four steals.

USC coach Andy Enfield was thrilled especially with Johnson’s performance, which he called “one of the best games I’ve ever seen a Trojan play.”

Both young wings had to shoulder more work than usual, with the Trojans left paper-thin on the interior.

USC guard Tre White, right, drives past Washington forward Keion Brooks during the second half of the Trojans' win Saturday.
USC guard Tre White, right, drives past Washington forward Keion Brooks during the second half of the Trojans' win Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Depth in the frontcourt had been a major concern even before Morgan was lost to injury. But never had it seemed so pressing as it did Saturday.

“Josh is one of the best defensive bigs in the country,” Enfield said. “When you lose one of the best defensive bigs, with all that game experience — Vince is learning, but he’s not nearly as good as Josh is defensively. He has the potential to be. He just has to figure it out.”

Iwuchukwu lasted two minutes before he was pulled, having twice been caught out of position defensively. He was replaced by Iaroslav Niagu, who struggled to do much better, as Washington big man Braxton Meah ran roughshod in the paint early on.

“You just can’t be in a wrestling match every time down the court,” Enfield said, when asked about his message to both. “You have to do a little better job.”

Enfield experimented with his frontcourt throughout, rotating in Harrison Hornery the most at 18 minutes. But none of USC’s big men seemed to find their footing for long enough Saturday. At one point, Enfield shirked his frontcourt altogether, playing five guards while his four big men sat.

“We tried a lot of different lineups tonight,” Enfield said. “We went big, we went small, in between.”

Iwuchukwu, who remains on a minutes’ restriction, led the way among the bigs, tallying six points and two rebounds.

Though, in spite of earning his first start, he played fewer minutes (10) Saturday than he did Thursday, when his two late blocks gave USC a major lift late against Washington State.

He wasn’t nearly as sharp against the Huskies, a reminder of how far he still has to go.

He wasn’t the only one who struggled Saturday. Drew Peterson shot four of 14, one of his worst shooting performances of the season. Boogie Ellis bricked an array of open looks, also finishing four of 14. The Trojans’ two leaders combined for 25 points after scoring 43 in their previous outing.

“I knew they weren’t hitting, so something had to be done,” said Johnson, who played through an ankle injury.

Outside of Johnson, USC was especially anemic from behind the arc, where it’d made a point of improving in recent weeks. That wasn’t the case Saturday, as the Trojans shot four of 22, one of their worst showings from deep this season. 

Two of those deep shots, however, came when USC needed them most.

With less than four minutes remaining and the score tied at 60, Johnson was left wide open in the corner. After hitting a critical three-pointer just two nights earlier, he hit another, giving USC a lead it wouldn’t relinquish from there.

A minute later, he hit another, handing USC a victory, even on a night when its perilously thin frontcourt proved to be a problem.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.