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Los Angeles • Among the many things that BYU sophomore center Erik Mika learned during his two-year church mission to Rome was that Italians enjoy the series of Rocky movies from the 1970s and 1980s starring Sylvester Stallone almost as much as Americans do.
Because he resembles Russian boxer Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in the 1985 film Rocky IV especially when he sports the spiky, close-cropped hairdo like he did as a freshman Mika says he was often asked to repeat Drago's line before he fought Rocky Balboa: "I must break you."
He says he will never utter those words, but he's not totally opposed to the Drago persona, either.
"We all hope I don't punch anyone in the face," Mika said with a laugh. "I don't want to be exactly like him, but I think it just kinda started with the haircut I had freshman year and then just with the physical play I brought. So everybody thought I looked like him. I think it is funny, but I don't give it a whole lot of thought."
Mika, 6-foot-10, also learned the importance of dedication, commitment and good old-fashioned hard work, traits that have helped the member of the 2014 West Coast Conference All-Freshman Team make the transition back to basketball more seamlessly than anyone imagined he could.
Mika averaged 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in 2013-14 while logging 25.7 minutes per game. Through seven games this season, he's averaging 19.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game while getting slightly less time on the floor, 23.9 minutes per game, due to foul trouble.
"His start so far this year is similar to how he ended two years ago, and that's what you hope for when you have your guys leave for a couple of years and come back that they can jump right back into it and be successful," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "His issue right now is maybe he is a little too aggressive. He's been in foul trouble a lot. … We expect him to continue to play with the fierce competitiveness that he really plays with, but also to learn a little more about the fouls and how they are being called."
Mika and the Cougars (5-2) will get a huge test on Saturday when they meet undefeated USC (7-0) at Staples Center as part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's inaugural HoopHall LA. The Trojans were dealt a big blow when the inside player they hoped could throttle Mika a bit, 6-10 sophomore center Bennie Boatwright, suffered a sprained knee in their 76-55 win over San Diego on Wednesday.
Mika twisted an ankle in Wednesday's 77-63 win over Utah State and missed a few minutes, but still had 20 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. That's the most he's played since getting 34 in the season-opening 82-73 win over Princeton when he served notice that the two-year layoff hadn't slowed him one bit. He had 26 points and 18 rebounds against the Tigers and went 12-for-13 from the free-throw line.
Mika gave his comeback a mixed review this week, partly because the Cougars had just suffered back-to-back losses to Valparaiso and Utah Valley, the latter loss particularly stunning.
"You hope to be able to help the team no matter how long you are gone," he said. "I mean, being gone for two years is definitely a long time. So it was weird coming back, and I hope to be able to help the team, which I think I've been able to do."
How did Mika round back into form so quickly? For every tale of a returned missionary who succeeded in their first year back Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth flourished, for instance there are stories of struggles and "mission legs" guys who needed a year or more to regain their games, fitness level and shooting touches.
Mika says upon returning in late April he watched a lot of film from his freshman season with BYU assistant coach Quincy Lewis, his former prep coach at Lone Peak. They quickly identified his penchant for getting into foul trouble in 2013-14 (a habit he has yet to shake) and also his need for improvement from the free-throw line. He shot 62 percent from the stripe as a freshman. He's shooting 80 percent from there this season.
"There are a lot of things I do better, but there are a lot of things I still need to improve on," Mika said. "Free-throw shooting is one that is going well right now. Quincy and I were in the gym a lot over the summer, shot thousands of free throws, and made sure that really that didn't become a mental thing, that the mental aspect was out of it and I was just shooting rep after rep and not thinking about it, just getting into a good groove."
A month after returning from Italy, Mika became engaged to his high school sweetheart, Gabrielle Gates, a 5-foot-2 former Lone Peak cheerleader who also served a church mission to Rome. They got married in September.
Rose said Mika's biggest growth has been in the mental aspects of the game, in addition to his improved free-throw accuracy.
"I really believe that offensively he is so much more confident," Rose said. "He has created that little fall-away shot that feels really comfortable to him. And then, his determination and his motor [have improved], his ability to get his hands on so many balls, second chance balls in scoring."
As for the foul trouble which sent him to the bench early in the Saint Louis, Valpo and UVU games Rose says Mika was on his mission when the NCAA made several rule changes regarding defensive play and what constitutes a foul, and moved the arc under the basket out a foot. The big guy is still trying to learn them and get used to them.
"And the only way you do that is from experience," Rose said. "He's gotta player more, and he will figure it out."
BYU at USC
P At the Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tipoff • 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPNU Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records • BYU 5-2, USC 7-0
Series history • USC leads, 6-3
Last meeting • USC 74, BYU 68 (Dec. 3, 2005)
About the Trojans • Andy Enfield has compiled a 54-51 record at the school and is in his fourth year. … G Elijah Stewart leads them is scoring with a 16.0 average, while F Chimezie Metu leads them in rebounding with 8.0 per contest. … They are holding opponents to 64.3 points per game.
About the Cougars • They are coming off a 77-63 win over Utah State in which three players posted career highs in points. Senior L.J. Rose had 18 points, while freshman Yoeli Childs had a career-high nine and sophomore Braiden Shaw had a career-high 10. … F Kyle Davis missed the USU game with a knee injury and is questionable for Saturday's game. Sophomore Elijah Bryant is still out with a knee injury.