USC can’t remain absent in March

Following UCLA’s 83-63 loss to Minnesota in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Friday night, USC redshirt junior forward Ari Stewart tweeted the following:

“UCLA about to be right back in L.A. with us,” he said.

On the one hand, it served as an entertaining, harmless jab at the Trojans’ crosstown rival, which was leaving the Big Dance about as soon as it entered. But on the other hand, it served as yet another reminder: USC is in Los Angeles too. In fact, the program has missed out on the tournament and stayed in Southern California three times during the last four seasons. Its lone appearance was a First Four loss to VCU in 2011, certainly a quick exit. It hasn’t cracked the field of 64 since 2009.

That’s a rather sad state of affairs, no doubt. It’s irrelevancy, to say the least. Now you have a student body — with the exception of fifth-year architecture majors or seniors on a victory lap — that has yet to really see its men’s basketball team in the Big Dance. March in South L.A., once again, just isn’t mad. Students continue to pass through the University Park Campus gates without a care in the world in regard to men’s basketball — a disappointing trend, especially when you consider the hectic, exciting pace of the sport and its single-elimination postseason tournament that seemingly appeals to the college demographic.

Tell me teams like Florida Gulf Coast aren’t fun to watch this time of year.

It’s why the coming weeks become so critical for USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, as the search for USC’s next head coach remains underway. A miss on the next hire presents increasingly drastic consequences.  The program can’t afford to be absent this time of year. As a special report in February from this newspaper pointed out, revenue and attendance are suffering. Reported men’s basketball-related revenue from 2011-12 stood at $4.81 million, ninth among Pac-12 schools. In the last two seasons, average attendance at the 10,258-seat Galen Center stood at just 4,102.

It all screams disinterest, and staying home in March only compounds the problem. It’s hard to foster any sort of on-campus hoops culture when players are operating TV remotes to watch NCAA tournament games rather than suiting up to play in them. To combat disinterest, you need a team that’s regularly in the postseason. Haden’s task is finding a coach who can do as much consistently.

It almost goes without saying, but USC needs a coach who can turn the program into a perennial tournament team. That stands as the priority. You hear so often about home run hires for USC basketball, the sleeping giant in the nation’s second largest city. But really, at present, this program needs a steady hand, if anything. It’s had too many good seasons over the last decade followed by disappointing, if not disastrous, ones.

It’s why names like Dana Altman make sense. To be clear, this isn’t a suggestion that Haden should hire the Oregon coach, who probably isn’t leaving Eugene, but a suggestion that someone like Altman makes sense.

For a quick profile: He’s 54 years old. He has led Oregon to the Sweet 16 in his third season with the program. The Ducks also won the Pac-12 tournament this month. Previously, at Creighton, he took the Bluejays to the NCAA tournament seven times. There isn’t much flash from the plain-spoken Nebraska native. Nothing fancy. Simply, he’s coached plenty of winning basketball teams over the years.

That’s the portfolio USC so desperately needs. It needs someone, anyone, to make college basketball relevant on this campus. It isn’t a secret formula tucked away in some cupboard. It’s as simple as finding a coach to get the program dancing every March.

So, perhaps cool the talk of the big-name hire or someone with local ties or someone who will install an up-tempo style of play. Why all the little bonuses? How about just hiring a good basketball coach?

USC basketball needs to learn to walk before it can run. Forget the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Let’s see if the Trojans can in fact play in March and return to the NCAA tournament. Let’s maybe start with that.


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