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Joey Kaufman | Orange County Register | January 3, 2019

5 burning questions for USC men's basketball entering Pac-12 play

USC hosts Cal in Thursday night's Pac-12 opener at the Galen Center, looking to turn the page from a tough nonconference stretch that included a four-game losing streak last month and reduced its chances at an at-large berth for the NCAA Tournament to slim.

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Here are five burning questions for the Trojans.

1. Is a conference title possible?

The Trojans will be hard-pressed to make the NCAA Tournament. The only probable path involves securing the Pac-12's automatic bid through winning the conference tournament come March. They went through nonconference play without a quality win and will see few opportunities to notch one in Pac-12 play. But the historically down year for the conference also means the Trojans can be part of a wide-open race for the regular-season league title, something the Trojans have not won since 1985. Ken Pomeroy's projections peg the Trojans to finish 16-15 overall and 9-9 in conference. That would be three games behind Oregon, the favorite projected to finish 12-6 in the Pac-12.

2. When will Kevin Porter Jr. return from a bruised thigh?

It has been more than six weeks since the talented freshman guard first bruised his thigh against Missouri State in Kansas City, causing him to miss all but four minutes of a Dec. 1 game against Nevada. Porter had once hoped to return for Sunday's nonconference finale against UC Davis, but has remained sidelined, is to be out against Cal and is considered doubtful for the following game against Stanford. Trojans coach Andy Enfield said Porter still hopes to return and is "absolutely not" sitting himself out before declaring for the NBA draft, but some speculation has grown during his absence. Trainers have told Porter that the bruise is severe, which seems to be the main reason he has been on the mend.

3. Has Bennie Boatwright turned a corner?

While recovering from knee surgery, Boatwright missed preseason practices, as well as the first two games, before returning against Stetson on Nov. 14. But he wasn't back to 100 percent overnight.

"I remember his first couple games," Enfield said. "He just couldn't do a lot. He was slow. He wasn't explosive. He couldn't slide laterally. He didn't have energy, because he was out of shape. And he wasn't confident on his knee. It really hurt him and our team as he was going through that process. We just hope he plays like an all-league player like he is capable of."

Boatwright, who leads the team in scoring, looked a little better in the recent wins over UC Davis and Southern Utah, averaging 18.5 points while shooting 48 percent, giving the team a much-needed lift. The senior forward said it took him time to acclimate and it wasn't until the most recent game that he felt fully back in game shape, "Toward the end of the game, I didn't feel too tired even though I was playing hard," Boatwright said. "That shows I'm getting into shape."

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4. Who replaces Jordan Usher in the rotation?

Usher, a frenetic sophomore wing, left the program this week, transferring after he was suspended indefinitely by the team for conduct issues. While averaging 24 minutes, the versatile 6-foot-7 Usher served as the Trojans' sixth man, often the first player off the bench and able to play multiple spots, in the frontcourt and on the wing. Freshman Elijah Weaver will likely see more playing time. He logged a career-high 29 minutes against UC Davis on Sunday while Usher was suspended. The 6-5 Weaver backs up point guard Derryck Thornton but can also play other guard spots.

5. Will Jonah Mathews remain streaky?

During the first two months of the season, Mathews has shot as poorly as 27 percent in some games and as well as 61 percent. The junior guard, who is the team's third-leading scorer, is shooting 42 percent overall this season, down from 46 percent last season. Mathews assumed a larger role on offense after the departures of senior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, but the Trojans stand to gain if he's more consistent from the field once conference play begins.

This article is written by Joey Kaufman from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.