Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Disrupted Troy: USC Basketball’s Scrambled Offseason

The USC Men’s Basketball program is coming off of a Cinderella season. Well, a Cinderella season minus the conference title, deep postseason run, or the third-string redshirt senior hitting a half-court shot with no time left in regulation to upset the top-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a campaign which one would necessarily classify as a “Cinderella season” for the Trojans, but it was definitely a notable one which fans will remember in the years to come. 

And while it was gut-wrenching for USC fans to watch as Providence perfectly executed an inbounds play that gave Friars forward Rodney Bullock the ball under the rim for an uncontested game-winning layup in that opening round of the NCAA Tournament — which put the Trojans behind 70-69 with 1.5 seconds remaining — there was still an atmosphere of optimism in Troy about what the team had accomplished this season. 

All things considered, this past season was a revitalizing one for USC Basketball. In head coach Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm, he led the men of Troy to a 21-13 overall record (9-9 in PAC-12 play) and USC clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011. In 2016, the Trojans exceeded the 20-win mark in the regular season for the first time since 2009. USC entered the NCAA tournament as an eight-seed before being abruptly eliminated in the first-round by Providence. In all, this past season appeared to serve as a launching pad for the relevancy of USC Men’s Basketball on a national scale in the years to come. 

However, player and personnel shifts made in the weeks shortly following the conclusion of the season have jeopardized USC’s status as one of the top up-and-coming programs in college basketball. The offseason began on a positive note for USC, as the Trojans and Enfield agreed on a two-year contract extension that will have him courtside for the team through the 2021 season. 

How quickly one’s fortune can change.

Almost immediately after the news broke regarding Enfield’s contract extension, Katin Reinhardt (11.4 PPG for the Trojans last season) announced his intentions to transfer from USC for his upcoming senior season. Sources have since confirmed that Reinhardt’s transfer has gone through and he will play his final season of college basketball for Marquette University. While the loss of Reinhardt — a proven swingman and offensive asset for the Trojans — certainly hurts, what came next for the Trojans may have ultimately been the big blow altering the outlook on the upcoming season for USC. 

In that same week in which Reinhardt announced his transfer, junior guard Julian Jacobs announced that he was forgoing his senior season and declaring for the NBA draft. Jacobs’ fellow junior teammate Nikola Jovanovic also announced that he would be declaring for the NBA Draft in mid-April. 

Upon hearing news of Jacobs and Jovanovic declaring, I almost immediately shrugged off the reality of them actually following through with the Draft process and forgoing their senior seasons. Some (what I thought were) rhetorical questions jumped into my mind: Is Jacobs really willing to pass up on the chance to be backcourt-mates with Jordan McLaughlin next year and arguably stand as the best 1-2 combo in the PAC-12? Do these guys not understand that ‘SC is a prime contender with them on the roster next year? What sort of draft stock could Jovanovic possibly see himself having right now? 

No offense to Jovanovic, but when all of this news broke about NBA Draft declarations, my attention and concern first went to Jacobs. As USC’s first PAC-12 First-Teamer since 2011, the prospect of losing Jacobs was terrifying. An explosive mix of athleticism and poise at the point, Jacobs was really at the center of all the positive strides which the Trojans made in 2016. Many expected Jacobs to return for his senior season, as he was projected to spearhead a USC team breaking its way into the elite ranks of college basketball. 

Jovanovic put together a solid 2016 season, leading the Trojans in rebounding (7.0 RPG) and averaging 12.1 points per contest. While he was listed as a forward, Jovanovic was often the closest thing the Trojans had to a consistent big-man in their front court. A consistent factor in USC’s lineup, Jovanovic started in all 34 regular season contests for the Trojans. 

Well, these two tested the Draft market and both seemed to find it fair enough to hire agents and thus officially conclude their USC Basketball careers. With both Jacobs and Jovanovic not receiving invitations to the NBA Draft Combine, there are a lot of question marks concerning their draft stock and teams’ interest in their services. 

The Trojans’ shaky offseason is the perfect testament to the fact that “Way Too Early Preseason Rankings” are in fact usually way too early. Sports Illustrated projected the Trojans to be the No. 17 team in the nation come opening night of the upcoming season. SI was not alone, several other “Way Too Early” preseason rankings had USC positioned in the top-20 entering next season. It’s safe to say that with the losses of Jacobs, Reinhardt, and Jovanovic, top-20 expectations will dwindle down to middle-of-the-pack expectations in PAC-12 standings. 

USC did in fact make several moves to bolster their roster and possibly salvage the outlook on the upcoming season. Receiving a versatile transfer like guard Shaqquan Aaron from Louisville will certainly help aid the backcourt effort next season without Jacobs. Junior guards Elijah Stewart and McLaughlin will now be called on more-than-ever to rise as backcourt leaders for the team in 2017. Also, it would not be surprising to see four-star recruit Jonah Mathews (Santa Monica High School, CA) find some playing time as a freshman in the absence of Jacobs. 

As a teenage sportswriter, I only find it appropriate to illustrate the USC Basketball offseason with a very typical teenage scenario. 

First, let’s set the cast. The USC Men’s Basketball program is the noble, hardworking, and decent-looking boyfriend. Jovanovic and Jacobs are the good-looking, but fame-hungry, girlfriend. And the NBA Draft is the irresistible star-quarterback who just hit campus last week and is already the talk of the town. 

Let’s just say that the girlfriend has been lured away by the jock as said boyfriend pleads in agony for one more date; or in USC’s case, one more season of play from Jacobs and Jovanovic. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

We Asked, and We Have Received; Enter Julio Urias

Things are looking surprisingly promising for the Dodgers right about now. I mean, this is the same team who just last week embarked on a painful four-game losing streak which saw Dodgers pitching accumulate a 5.43 team ERA; the week also included dropping the Freeway Series to the Angels — which always hurts. 

Oh, the difference a strong series can make on a team’s outlook.

The Dodgers are coming off a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds — who have had their fair share of struggles lately — this week at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers sandwiched the series sweep with stellar pitching performances from Clayton Kershaw (CG, 2 H, 0 R, 7 K) in the opener, and Scott Kazmir (12 K in 6 IP) in the finale. Alarmingly, things in Dodgertown had been getting pretty dusty of late, as this was Los Angeles’ first series sweep since pounding the Padres in the season-opener way back on April 4-6. 

The team is now riding a four-game winning streak, and with one organizational move Thursday morning things just got a whole lot more exciting for the Dodgers upcoming road series against the Mets this weekend. The Dodgers announced that highly-touted 19-year-old pitching prospect Julio Urias had been called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City to join the Major League rotation. Urias (No. 2 overall prospect in’s Prospect Watch) is set to make his Major League debut Friday night at Citi Field.

The Dodgers acquired Urias’ services in a 2012 deal that saw Los Angeles dish out a total of $450,000 to negotiate a contract with, a then sixteen-year-old, left-handed pitcher from Mexico. Since signing, Urias has developed into one of the most highly-touted pitching phenoms in all of the minor leagues. 

As a 16, 17, and 18-year-old, Urias posted ERA’s of 2.48, 2.36, and 2.77 respectively. Pitching this season for Triple A Oklahoma City, Urias has further established himself as the top pitcher in the Dodgers’ farm system and very likely all of the minor leagues. Prior to his call up Thursday, Urias had a 4-1 record for the OKC Dodgers and led the Pacific Coast League in both ERA (1.10) and WHIP (0.78). If that wasn’t impressive enough, the left-hander hailing from Sinaloa was riding an active 27-inning scoreless streak before getting the Major League promotion from the Dodgers. 

Those well established within the Dodgers organization have been sure to chime in on Urias’ ability. Manager Dave Roberts has constantly been high on Urias’ upside as a prospect and a possible mid-season call up option for the Major League club.

“The repeatability of his mechanics for a young pitcher is impressive,” Roberts told Bill Plunkett of the OC Register. “The sharpness of his breaking ball, the late life of his fastball, the glove-side command with his fastball is pretty impressive. There’s a lot to like.”

Additionally, Ken Rosenthal reports that former Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke regarded Urias as “the most perfect pitching prospect I’ve ever seen.” High praises from a pretty high-ranking Major League hurler. 

While the hype surrounding Urias is overwhelming, one must remember what he is long-term for the Dodgers: a pitching gem that they really can’t afford to mishandle and screw up. You can definitely expect an innings limit to be implemented on the most valuable left arm in all the minor leagues. 

While the quality of the content Urias has produced in the minors has been outstanding, there hasn’t been all too much quantity. The most innings Urias has pitched in a season was 87 2/3 back in 2014 for Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. Also, Urias’ season-high for pitches in a single outing this season with Oklahoma City has been 82; his career high is 89 pitches in a contest for Double-A Tulsa in 2015. While his stuff has most certainly been off the charts, there has undoubtedly been a reluctance to let Urias adopt a heavy workload in the minor leagues thus far. 

Most Major League organizations stray away from rapidly increasing the pitching workloads for their top prospects. So, as Urias — who has pitched 41 innings this season at Triple-A — makes his Major League debut, one can be assured that should he inherit a permanent role with the club, a workload limit around 120-140 innings for 2016 would be in effect.

There is the possibility of handing Urias a role in the Dodgers bullpen to account for this innings limit. The Dodgers bullpen — which has its own notorious reputation for instability — could take in Urias and help him acclimate to pitching in the Majors at a rate comfortable for Dodgers management; the Dodgers’ bullpen also currently ranks a middle-of-the-pack 12th in bullpen ERA (3.52) across the Majors. 

One must also keep in mind that Urias — who will be filling in for injured (tricep) Dodgers starter Alex Wood Friday — could possibly just be up with the Dodgers for a quick taste  of Major League action before being sent back down to Triple-A. There have been several occasions in which Major League clubs have called up a top prospect momentarily to make a start or two (think David Price and Chris Archer with the Rays) before returning to the minors. However, Urias certainly has the ability to impress Roberts with a strong outing Friday night and could possibly even earn some consideration for entering the rotation permanently. This is the fantasy every Dodger fan is dreaming up as Urias' debut approaches. 

When Urias takes the mound Friday night he will become just the second teenager (19 years, 288 days) this century to start a game. The other? Felix Hernandez (19 years, 188 days) back in 2005. Not bad company at all, am I right? 

Chat with any decent, half-knowledgable Dodger fan and they will be sure to remember the last time a teenager debuted on the mound for the team — because the result was pretty epic. On September 15, 1980, Fernando Valenzuela — a teenage left-hander from Mexico, sound familiar? — made his Major League debut as an Opening Day rookie starter for the Dodgers. What ensued was historic, and can only be summed up with one phrase: Fernandomania. That 1981 season saw Valenzuela win both the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, all the while captivating a nation and Los Angeles community which fully embraced him. The Dodgers capped off Fernandomania by winning the 1981 World Series; not a bad rookie campaign, huh?

If Urias can manage to garner even a fraction of the success his Mexican predecessor bore for the Dodgers, then consider the Julio Urias experiment a wild success. 

Now I am off to to the pensive grindstone, trying to crank out some slogan half-as-cool as “Fernandomania" to coronate Urias with. Urias-mania? Uria-lly good? Urias-wood? This one will take a bit longer.