I pretty much wrote off the USC men’s basketball team a while back, thinking it had two chances at making the NCAA tournament — slim and none.
But after defeating UCLA at the Galen Center in early January, I thought this year would be different.
They clobbered then-No. 19 Texas at home (Texas is now No. 5 in the nation), went to the wire at No. 3 Kansas and eked out a victory at then-No. 19 Tennessee.
This all happened within a two-and-a-half week stretch, and I felt this was the year the basketball program had a legitimate shot to be dancing in March.
Then Oregon and bottom-dwelling Oregon State defeated USC. The Trojans followed up an empty road trip alternating wins and losses in their next four games.
Inconsistent play, an ineptness to solve a zone defense and an inability to make free-throws were their most glaring weaknesses.
That summed up the first half of conference play, and the second half didn’t start off any differently — a loss at UCLA and a home split with the Oregon schools made USC’s chances look even bleaker.
Then, after Valentine’s Day, something changed.
Maybe the USC basketball players were re-energized with all that chocolate, or maybe USC coach Kevin O’Neill had a change of heart.
And it worked.
Jones poured in 22 points off the bench, sparking USC to a 78-75 victory. At one point in the second half, he scored 16 points in just under six minutes.
With the win, the Trojans snapped their eight-game losing streak.
Next up: The Stanford Cardinal.
For the second consecutive game, Jones came off the bench and Smith was once again the starter.
It worked again.
USC convincingly defeated Stanford 69-53, and for the first time since 1992, it swept the Bay Area schools.
And for the first time since January 2008, the Trojans won back-to-back road games.
One simple lineup change translated to two wins on the road, and arguably two of USC’s most complete games this season.
The Trojans were in eighth place in the Pac-10, but now they sit in a tie for fourth place in the conference with Oregon.
With No. 10 Arizona and Washington still on its schedule (two teams that are projected to make the NCAA tournament), USC can bolster its resumé for the selection committee assuming it wins.
Pending these results, along with the games against Arizona State and Washington State, USC could receive a bye in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament.
And depending on their performance in the tournament, the Trojans have a shot at reaching 20 wins, which is the measuring stick for teams looking to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
Now, it’s conceivable to think it’s possible.
I like what O’Neill has done, too.
Though Smith certainly gives the team a scoring threat off the bench, moving Jones to a sixth-man-type role changes the whole dynamic of a game.
His speed changes the tempo of the game and I see his role as literally a sparkplug off the bench.
The move also puts Fontan into more of a facilitator’s role, but also leaves Smith to do the same one thing O’Neill wants him to do: shoot.
As opposed to having basically two point guards (Jones and Fontan) in the backcourt, Smith spreads the floor with his shooting ability, and gives more room for Vucevic and senior forward Alex Stepheson to operate in the post.
As a whole, this move changes the entire complexion of the starting lineup, and it has certainly shown up in the stat sheet.
Since the change, Vucevic has averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Stepheson has averaged 12.5 points and eight rebounds — both stats exceed their season averages to this point.
With the improved play of their two big men, along with rejuvenated guard play, the Trojans might be sniffing the finish line.
And despite all its troubles on the court (beating a zone defense, free-throw shooting) and off the court (guard Bryce Jones transferring), USC is certainly keeping its NCAA tournament hopes alive with its recent play.
The Trojans were down, but don’t count them out just yet. As the old adage goes, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Now, USC is certainly making a case with its play to finish strong and dance its way into March.
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