Men’s basketball can earn respect vs. UCLA

I came to a depressing conclusion this morning: USC isn’t going to make the NCAA basketball tournament. And they aren’t going to the NIT tournament, either.

But you know what? I’m still really happy about this 12-14 squad. And after Sunday, I might be a whole lot happier.

Sunday is when the Trojans host arch-nemesis UCLA at the Galen Center, looking for their second season sweep over the Bruins in four seasons. By beating the Bruins, it would not only deflate the entire Westwood area, but would signal the start of something: that USC basketball is for real.

Now, I’m not saying a win over UCLA would take away the pain of 2011’s 6-26 record or this year’s record, regardless of how things wrap up. It doesn’t make up for the fact that UCLA has won 11 national titles in the sport and USC has none. What it does do, however, is show real improvement — that the Trojans aren’t content to be bottom feeders for eternity.

After a gutsy stretch of games that the Trojans have recently won, head coach Bob Cantu’s squad looks like it might be able to win a few more contests this season. Fans won’t have to wear bags on their heads or pretend they don’t know where the Galen Center is. Sunday’s game is the culmination of momentum building up for USC men’s basketball. It’s officially game time.

I’ll say it outright: the Sunday game means everything.

The athletic department is forcing students sitting in a certain section to wear bright gold “Trojan Fever” t-shirts. Tickets for the game aren’t particularly cheap. For the first time in a while, the Galen Center might look filled. There are going to be an awful lot of people watching the game on TV, too.

This is a chance for the Trojans to prove they belong. That they can hang on the court with the big boys again. That this isn’t just a football school. That USC basketball can be more than an afterthought.

And let’s not forget the players who are going to be on the court, either. There are stars all around the board for both teams. UCLA features freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad, a likely top-five pick in the 2013 NBA draft. They have the Wear twins, both of whom will likely be NBA players. They have a six-foot-nine point guard named Kyle Anderson who is built a little like another point guard who used to rule Los Angeles (minus the assist statistics).

Meanwhile, the Trojans are less heralded but are getting recognition because of their recent four-game winning streak that came to an end against Cal last Sunday. Senior guard Jio Fontan, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is playing with a lot of heart. He’s hitting big free throws and isn’t turning the ball over. Junior forward Dewayne Dedmon is starting to look like every bit of his seven-foot frame. Senior forward Eric Wise and sophomore guard Byron Wesley are hitting shots and are looking like solid players. Heck, junior guard J.T. Terrell finally looks like a top-100 prospect.

Look at this. I’m getting excited about USC basketball. I’m thrilled the Trojans are in sixth place in the Pac-12. There are players on this USC team worth watching. This game against UCLA will be a culmination of all the good things that have come from this roster and the stellar coaching of Cantu. The Bruins have an awful lot to play for come Sunday: seeding in the conference tournament and getting off the NCAA tournament bubble. The Trojans, though, have something bigger to play for: pride.

Pride is the heart of all athletics, whether it be at the high school, collegiate or professional level. Beating the Bruins would give this team all the pride in the world. The Trojans aren’t going to win a national championship this season. They probably won’t next year either. They might make the NCAA tournament in the next couple of years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Beating UCLA will add to the excitement that the Trojans have been building on during the past few weeks. It will get a fan base that is in dire need of hope genuinely excited for basketball. Who would have thought that was even possible in Troy?


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