A pair of participants in last season’s NCAA Tournament meet in a regional nonconference showdown on Wednesday, as Southern California welcomes reigning Big West Conference tournament champion Cal State Fullerton to Los Angeles.
USC (6-3) is returning to nonleague competition with Wednesday’s contest, coming off a 2-0 start to Pac-12 Conference play last week.
The Trojans routed Cal 66-51 on the road on Nov. 30 before completing a wild comeback from down 11 points at halftime to beat Oregon State 63-62 on Sunday.
Kobe Johnson scored 17 points and made five steals against the Beavers. The sophomore came through with a pivotal stretch in which he made a 3-pointer, scored in the paint and came up with his final takeaway.
“This is a big game for him because we have a lot of players who are developing,” USC coach Andy Enfield said postgame. “We won 26 games last year and were ranked in the top 20 (in 2021-22) … on that team we had a lot of veterans.
“If you look at Kobe Johnson, he was a role player last year as a freshman and helped us, but he didn’t play 33 minutes like he did tonight and start.”
Enfield cited players such as Johnson, Tre White and Joshua Morgan developing to complement returning starters Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis as central to the Trojans’ improvement.
Cal State Fullerton (4-4) is going through its own roster turnover coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance. That includes replacing last season’s 16.3-point, 8.3-rebound per game leader, E.J. Anosike.
Senior Jalen Harris has stepped up as the Titans’ primary scoring option and is averaging almost 15 points per game, an increase of almost six points a contest compared to a season ago.
However, Cal State Fullerton is still seeking its footing as a team.
“We have four starters back, but their roles will change, their identities will change,” Titans coach Dedrique Taylor told the Orange County Register in November.
“Right now, we’re trying to establish our identity on and off the floor. I have to establish our identity on the defensive standpoint. We have to guard people.”
Wednesday marks the Titans’ first game in the Southland since Nov. 22, as the team has lost three consecutive games, all played on the road or a neutral court.
Cal State Fullerton dropped back-to-back games Nov. 26, to Utah Tech 66-60, and Nov. 27, to North Dakota, with both contests in North Dakota. The Titans also fell 69-62 at Seattle on Nov. 30.
–Field Level Media