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Bennie Boatwright will return to USC, making the Trojans early Pac-12 title contenders

USC forward Bennie Boatwright (25) celebrates with a teammate after defeating Southern Methodist during the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

forward Bennie Boatwright announced on Thursday that he will withdraw from the NBA draft and return for his junior season. Boatwright’s announcement means the Trojans will return almost all of their roster from last season’s NCAA tournament team.

Previously, forward Chimezie Metu said he would forgo entering the NBA draft and guard Elijah Stewart changed his mind and also opted to return. Only guard Shaqquan Aaron remains declared for the draft, though he hasn’t hired an agent and is eligible to return.

The return of USC’s front court is the best-case scenario for Coach Andy Enfield, who has stewarded USC to two straight NCAA tournament appearances despite a roster with a striking absence of depth and experience. After USC’s season ended against Baylor, Enfield danced around making a public recommendation for Boatwright or Metu. But he did hint that often, the best course of action is to return while “improving your opportunity to have guaranteed money or to be a higher pick, to be more NBA-ready.”

One year ago, Enfield did not get his wish. Two players left early for the draft and four transferred from the program.

But the return of Metu, who won the Pac-12’s most-improved player award, boded well for Boatwright’s decision. The two arrived in the same recruiting class and are close friends. By this week, USC’s coaches were optimistic.

Boatwright’s draft stock was also hampered by injuries last season. He missed a total of 17 games with knee and hip injuries.

With Boatwright and Metu returning, USC will be expected to compete for a Pac-12 title. Last season’s top three teams, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, all saw significant amounts of talent leave for the NBA.

After the season, while Metu mulled his future, he said success next season was “just a matter of everybody going back.”

If they did that, he said, the goal would be “trying to get to a national championship game."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand