Early in the morning of Dec. 1, the USC coaching staff huddled in the ornamented lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego to plot a forward path.

The staff holds similar meetings after every game. At home, they gather in the office of Coach Andy Enfield, who usually sets out peppermint patties for the group.

The sessions are informal. Coaches spitball ideas, Enfield bats down or approves some of them, and they move on.

"That particular meeting after the San Diego game just went a little longer than usual,” associate head coach Tony Bland recalled, chuckling.

The urgency owed to the previous evening, when forward Bennie Boatwright sustained a knee injury. The Trojans’ most optimistic hope was that he would return sometime this season. In any event, Boatwright would be out for a while.

The mood at the meeting wasn’t overly gloomy, several assistants said — most had been on staff when point guard Jordan McLaughlin suffered a season-ending injury two season ago, and they knew such things happened. But as they clutched coffee in paper cups, troublesome questions festered. How could their small roster survive defensively? Would the offense have to change? What players would they plug in?

“We didn’t know exactly what it was going to be,” Bland said. "When you lose a guy like Bennie, it’s not as easy as just ‘plug in.’"

Two months later, as it heads into Saturday’s game against No. 5 Oregon at the Galen Center, USC is the hottest team in the Pac-12 Conference — in part because of the opportunities Boatwright’s injury forced open.

Lightly used freshmen filled important roles. The defense discovered new tools. Inconsistency was more harshly punished.

USC, 21-4 overall, 8-4 in Pac-12 play, weathered all of its losses without Boatwright. Now that he has returned, USC is reaping the benefits.

"They’ve helped their development,” Enfield said, referring to the players who were prompted to step up. “I mean, they’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to play minutes and meaningful minutes, and then they’ve done something with those minutes. They’ve been productive. They’ve helped us win games."

No one capitalized on the vacuum in the starting lineup more than USC’s freshmen. Enfield shuffled the starting lineup often in December, searching for a workable combination. Freshman guard Jonah Mathews said he had expected to play 12 to 13 minutes a game in his first season. That changed with Boatwright’s injury.

Mathews’ opportunity came in December against Wyoming, when the coaching staff gave him his first extended time of the season. He exploded for 26 points and six steals in 39 minutes. He made himself essential.

“After that, it really picked up for me,” Mathews said.

Mathews’ playing time surged from less than 18 minutes a game to more than 24. Enfield has said Mathews is now USC’s best on-ball defender, and he earned trust.

"I got to be back on the court faster,” Mathews said. “And when I was hitting shots, I got to stay on the court longer."

De’Anthony Melton, another freshman guard, began his breakout before Boatwright’s injury. But it accelerated his schedule. Melton’s playing time swelled by almost five minutes a game. He went from a reserve to a mainstay in the starting lineup who ranks third or better on the team in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

“They had to be depended on each game for us to even have a chance of winning,” assistant coach Jason Hart said. “Now when they’re playing a little less, they have confidence.”

The pair’s maturation didn’t help USC’s size issue. Enfield at first tried to replace the 6-foot-10 Boatwright with 6-11 forward Nick Rakocevic, another freshman.

Rakocevic saw a small bump in time too, and has become an effective rebounder. But Rakocevic lacks Boatwright’s speed. Most often, USC made do with four guards.

The small lineup had a welcomed side effect: USC developed a swarming zone defense. Enfield prefers man-to-man, but he began emphasizing some zone during training camp as a way to limit fouls with a short bench, Hart said.

With its lack of size, USC began deploying it for longer stretches of the game.

The more they used it, the better it became. Many times, it worked better than man-to-man. Enfield continued to deploy it liberally even after Boatwright returned.

"It’s been one of our most effective defenses this year,” McLaughlin said. “So we just keep going to it.”

A similar trend formed on the boards. USC’s rebounding effort survived the zone and the lack of length with an all-hands approach.

Chimezie Metu leads USC with a modest average of 7.5 rebounds a game. But guards such as Melton, who averages 5.5 rebounds, allowed USC to maintain a positive rebounding margin.

Despite missing Boatwright, who is averaging 17.3 points in his first three games back, USC is winning at a rate beyond last season’s pace, when it made its first NCAA tournament in five years.

"It taught us that nobody was going to feel sorry for us,” Hart said of Boatwright’s injury. “And it taught us that we had to compete every game just to have a chance.”

The habits formed during that time, he added, helped the Trojans stay competitive without their star forward, and make them even stronger since his return.



When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710.

Update: Oregon (21-4, 10-2) dealt USC its first loss of the season in December. It was also its most lopsided, a 23-point blowout. McLaughlin called the performance "probably the worst we could have played." … Oregon has mostly cruised since. It defeated Arizona, the Pac-12’s top team, by 27 points last week. Dillon Brooks paces the Ducks with an average of 14.6 points. Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell clog the inside: Boucher averages 2.7 blocks, and Bell averages 2.1. And Oregon averages 8.6 three-pointers.  … The shots dried up Thursday in a loss to UCLA, when the Ducks squandered a 19-point, first-half lead. The last time Oregon lost consecutive games was just shy of a year ago.


Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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