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No. 10 USC opens season under FBI cloud

LOS ANGELES -- The return of several key players off an NCAA Tournament team landed No. 10 USC its highest preseason ranking since 1974-75, but the Trojans' 2017-18 tipoff Friday at Galen Center against Cal State Fullerton is perhaps more noteworthy as the program's first game since its involvement in a major scandal.

Trojans assistant Tony Bland was one of four coaches arrested in September as part of an FBI investigation into alleged bribery and wire fraud.

"We all love Tony. It's very difficult on a personal level, it's very difficult on a program level because we all had great relationships with each other," USC head coach Andy Enfield said at last month's Pac-12 media day.

USC turns its focus to on-court matters with a roster featuring noteworthy returners in guards Jordan McLaughlin, Shaqquan Aaron, Elijah Stewart and De'Anthony Melton, and forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, cornerstones of a 26-10 squad that took Baylor to the wire in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Trojans also add transfer Derryck Thornton from Duke, and highly touted freshman Charles O'Bannon Jr., whose dad was a member of rival UCLA's 1995 national championship team.

In total, USC returns an average of 71 points, 27.6 rebounds and 13.6 assists per game between its top six veterans.

"They're a very talented, they're a very deep team. They're long, they're athletic, and I expect their pace to be at a very high level," Cal State Fullerton head coach Dedrique Taylor said. "I expect them to really take advantage of their size in terms of pounding the paint, as far as either scoring in the paint, or spread the floor to shoot (3-pointers)."

One of USC's top weapons combines both that size and 3-point shooting ability, in the 6-foot-10 Boatwright. Boatwright's 47 made 3-pointers a season ago tied McLaughlin for most among the Trojans -- and Boatwright did so in 17 fewer games.

"It's a difficult task to defend when they've got guys on the floor who can shoot -- particularly guys who can shoot with that type of size," Taylor said.

Cal State Fullerton ended the 2016-17 campaign strong, winning seven of eight over a stretch spanning February and March. The Titans nearly upset Big West champion UC Davis in the semifinal of the conference tournament, and earned an invitation to the College Insider Tournament.

"We got a taste last year of what it felt like to win, so we want to keep that culture going and keep getting better," said Titans guard Kyle Allman.

Allman is one of three Titans returners who averaged in double-figures a season ago at 10.2 points, along with forward Jackson Rowe (10.4) and guard Khalid Ahmad (11.2). Cal State Fullerton replaces leading scorer Tre' Coggins and assists leader Lionheart Leslie.

"We've got different guys on the floor in different roles now," Taylor said. "We'll have to find our rhythm, find our roles, and the only way you get that is through game experience."

One phase in which Cal State Fullerton will aim to recreate last season's success is through its defensive turnover creation and fast-break opportunities, both of which Allman said were crucial to the late-season surge.

"As athletic as we are as a team, it allowed us to get out in transition and make plays as a team and get out in transition, as opposed to just trying to score in the half court," he said.

The numbers bear that out. Cal State Fullerton ranked a solid No. 91 nationally in steal percentage, per KenPom.com metrics, and No. 100 in opponent turnover percentage. Conversely, USC ranked 20th in the nation in offensive turnover percentage.

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