In the minutes prior to tipoff between the USC men’s basketball team and UCLA on Sunday afternoon, the Galen Center video board flashed a montage of highlights from the Trojans’ upset win over the Bruins on Jan. 30. It showed flashy dunks and some last-minute free throws, preserving the victory in the minds of fans.
USC players and fans smiled, reminiscing. Meanwhile, UCLA players and fans grimaced, re-living the game.
“That definitely pissed them off,” senior forward Renaldo Woolridge said, when asked about the Bruins’ reaction to the video clips. “It would’ve pissed me off.”
Pissed-off UCLA opened the game by racing out to 7-0 lead in less than three minutes. Its lead grew would only grow from there to 17-4 and then to 21-8. Little changed when the final buzzer rang. UCLA won and did so handily by a final score of 75-59.
For USC, which had been riding a modest four-game winning streak as recently as nine days ago, Sunday’s loss, combined with a similarly disappointing defeat at Cal on Feb. 17 in which it relinquished a 15-point second half lead, functioned as a slap back to reality. This, by all accounts, isn’t playing to rise — contrary to the team’s frequently mentioned slogan.
“We didn’t come ready,” said junior center Omar Oraby, who finished with 11 points. “It comes down to who plays harder, and they played harder.”
The Trojans were simply out of it from the get-go versus the Bruins.
“It was too much of a hole to get out of,” added USC interim coach Bob Cantu, speaking on UCLA’s first-half onslaught.
No doubt, double-digit deficits remain difficult to overcome.
“Obviously it’s a loss, but with the rivalry it’s bigger than a loss,” junior guard J.T. Terrell said.
And so Sunday served as the Trojans’ second-straight loss. Not to mention they’re now 12-15 overall and 7-7 in the Pac-12. The NCAA tournament? That remains every bit of an afterthought barring an unexpected run in the conference tournament to secure an automatic bid. The NIT? That stands increasingly less likely as the Trojans inch further away from the .500 benchmark.
This season — whatever was left of it, anyway — appears to be slipping from their grasp. It isn’t unexpected: Moving on from Kevin O’Neill and a nightmarish final 12 months of his tenure isn’t exactly a quick, overnight fix. Evidently, undoing the damage is going to take a bit of time, perhaps much more than it looked like a couple weeks ago.
No matter how well Cantu, who is now 5-5 since taking over for O’Neill in January, has done at changing the culture around the program and inspiring confidence among players midseason, everything about his scheme looks off. The Trojans still take terrible shots and have little flow offensively; by and large, they live and die by 3-pointers and 17-foot jumpers, which can lead to some nice wins but hardly serves as a recipe for any long-term offensive success.
As for defense, Sunday’s effort couldn’t have been much worse. To open the game, the Bruins made 8 of their first ten shots, a rate that would eventually culminate in a 47.2 percent clip for the game.
The problem currently appears to be that USC can’t find any sort of middle ground for its team. With O’Neill at the helm, they looked like an over-disciplined bunch, robots timid and hesitant to assert themselves on the court, especially on the offensive end. Now, by contrast, they seemingly lack any discipline, are out of position on defense and hoist ill-advised shots on offense.
Cantu mentioned during his post-game media session that this is a “low” point. There’s nothing new about that: In basketball, as he mentioned, there are plenty of highs and lows. But this group’s problems run deeper than simply a low point. Really, UCLA and Cal have exposed ’SC after a two-week span in which good shooting masked a number of glaring problems: regression on defense and a lack of anything that resembles offensive structure.
This program needs an overhaul. That much is apparent in the wake of a 16-point home loss to a crosstown rival. Does that overhaul still leave Cantu in the big chair on the Galen Center sidelines? Perhaps, sure. But with every loss, it becomes an increasingly unlikely possibility.
Whoever takes over on a full-time basis, whether that’s Cantu or the wide range of candidates who have been publicly linked to the opening in recent weeks, has quite a bit of work cut out for them. What transpired Sunday sure indicates this team is one that’s far, far away from one dancing in March. Despite O’Neill’s departure, USC is still chasing not only UCLA, but most everyone out west.
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