What if USC had made the NCAA tournament?
A silly hypothetical, I know. The Trojans were nowhere near qualified enough to make it to March Madness. They were an average basketball team at best, with an interim coach at the helm to boot.
But it’s the last week of March — we have Cinderella teams like Florida Gulf Coast University, La Salle and Wichita State in the Sweet 16 after knocking out a couple of powerhouse squads. As brackets are busted across the nation, it’s the ultimate “what if” period for basketball junkies.
So, let’s say the Trojans didn’t lose to the Utah Utes in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. In fact, let’s assume USC went on a miraculous run and won the conference championship. How many teams could the Trojans realistically defeat with their newly minted automatic bid?
Probably not many. USC finished 2-11 against teams that qualified for the tournament — its two wins were against the UCLA Bruins on Jan. 30 and the Arizona Wildcats on Feb. 27. Both of those teams entered the tournament as a six seed, which is a good indicator of the maximum level of competition this Trojan team was capable of pulling an upset against.
Of course, as Florida Gulf Coast proved in its victory over second-seeded Georgetown, sometimes you can throw all the statistics in the world out the window. But, in general, this tournament has been devoid of major surprises, contrary to the Cinderella stories making headlines.
The West region is all over the place with a nine seed (Wichita State) facing off against a 13 seed (La Salle) and a six seed (Arizona) taking on a two seed (Ohio State), but the rest of the tournament has gone pretty much according to plan. The East region still has its top four seeds intact. The Midwest features the top three seeds and 12-seeded Oregon, a team that should’ve easily been ranked higher. The South region is more of the same — three of the top four seeds remain.
USC would have a fighting chance in its first matchup mostly because of its streaky shooting. Under interim head coach Bob Cantu, the Trojans scored 50 points in their first meeting against the Wildcats and 89 points in their rematch. If players like junior guard J.T. Terrell got hot early, it’s definitely not inconceivable to think the team could’ve at least made it interesting in the round of 64. Terrell is more than capable of dropping 25 points on virtually anyone. Temple’s Khalif Wyatt exuded that very quality, as the senior guard dropped back-to-back 31 point games and nearly brought the Owls to the Sweet 16.
When you play the odds though, there are few teams you could pick out as easy wins for the Trojans. I would assume USC could defeat any of the 16-seeds, probably by double-digits. After that, nothing is guaranteed. The Trojans lost to some pretty average teams this year, including Nebraska and Georgia (albeit during the Kevin O’Neill era). On paper, they’re more talented than Florida Gulf Coast. They’re probably more talented than plenty of other double-digit seeds, especially mid-major squads who didn’t face off against nearly as much stiff competition. But that talent just didn’t seem to mesh during the regular season. Not only that — even a conference title wouldn’t save the Trojans from being one of the lowest seeds in the tournament. They’d likely get an unfavorable matchup against one of the best teams in the country. Other than that home win against Arizona, the Trojans were unable to beat a single ranked team in the regular season.
Still, it’s not like USC was in the easiest conference in the world. The Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks, woefully underseeded in the NCAA tournament, easily beat Oklahoma State and Saint Louis. The Arizona Wildcats, a team USC defeated, blew out Belmont and Harvard. The conference as a whole is 5-3 in the field of 68, one of the better marks in college basketball.
When it comes down to it, even a dream scenario in which the Trojans swept through the Pac-12 tournament into March Madness just wouldn’t have ended well. A first-round upset would’ve been possible, but definitely not plausible. And beyond that, there would’ve been practically zero chance of a Florida Gulf Coast-esque run against some of the nation’s best squads.
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