LOS ANGELES, CA (News4usonline) – In each of USC’s first two games of the 2019-2020 season, Wooden Award Watch Lister Nick Rakocevic didn’t look like himself. The Chicago native recorded combined totals of 16 points and 11 rebounds in USC’s wins over Florida A&M and Portland.
But Tuesday night, entering 20 points shy of 1,000 career points, Rakocevic returned to form and USC improved to 3-0, defeating South Dakota State 84-66. He tied a career-high with 27 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. His five steals marked a career-best.
Fellow senior Jonah Mathews’ senior season has also gotten off to a slow start. He’s been taken out of the Trojans’ starting lineup twice this season by head coach Andy Enfield for being late to class, including Tuesday night. In 25 minutes off the bench, Mathews contributed a season-high 14 points. He entered just five points shy of the 1,000-point mark.
So, despite poor starts to their final seasons of collegiate hoops, Mathews and Rakocevic shared a special moment on the floor Tuesday night, becoming the 41st and 42nd Trojans to score 1,000 points or more.
“It’s crazy,” Mathews said. “I’ve known him since I was 16, so to have it on the same night, it’s something special.”
The two first met as opponents in the Nike EYBL national AAU circuit in high school.
“Having it on the same night, it was really cool,” Rakocevic said. “And I think that’s something we’re going to remember forever. Just being in that column of people who have done a lot in this program, to be a part of that list is truly a blessing.”
Mathews shot 3-of-7 from beyond the arc, bringing his career 3-point total to 185 made. That’s tied for sixth on USC’s all-time list alongside Jordan McLaughlin. Rakocevic’s now 692 career rebounds rank 15th on USC’s all-time list. USC’s 84 points signaled the most they’ve scored this season.
“It’s pretty special,” Enfield said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that as a coach. We’re really excited for [Mathews and Rakocevic]. They have a chance to do something special this year together, to be leaders of a team. We have a lot of young players that look up to them.”
One of those young players is freshman starting center Onyeka Okongwu, who’s already established himself as one of the nation’s top underclassmen. The addition of Okongwu moves Rakocevic out of his natural position at center and into the four-spot, a transition that’s proven to be challenging for the senior.
“People have never really seen me play anything but the five,” Rakocevic said. “So now playing at the four, [I’m] guarding perimeter guys. It’s not always going to be denying the ball in the post and things like that. You’ve got to worry about backscreens and crosscreens and playing up top.”
USC plays as many as three bigs on the floor at the same time, with Rakocevic, Okongwu and freshman Isaiah Mobley. While the lineup gives the Trojans great length and depth, it’ll continually take time to mesh. Playing an unnatural position has left Rakocevic with the ball on the perimeter at times, a situation Enfield and the rest of USC’s offense would like to avoid.
“When Nick does what he does well, he looks good, he’s an all-league player,” Enfield said. “He’s got great hands and great feet and he can run. When he starts playing with the basketball on the perimeter, like he did when he tried to drive from the 3-point line, or he’s shooting stepback 3s and shooting airballs, that’s when he looks like a bad player.”
USC will need Rakocevic and Mathews to be consistent quickly, as the Trojans head to Nevada for their first road test of the season this weekend. USC’s roster features six freshmen, all of whom played in high pressure environments throughout their high school careers. If USC can find a way for their veteran and young talent to mesh together, the sky’s the limit.
As Rakocevic put it, “This is the deepest team I think that we’ve ever had.”
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.