There is nothing quite like March Madness. It starts with conference tournaments that guarantee automatic berths and ends with one shining moment after the new champion is crowned. The electric atmosphere is intoxicating for every college basketball fan, as brackets are inevitably busted and a surprise mid-major makes a Cinderella run.
No matter whom you root for, March Madness is an exciting time. From scrutinizing the matchups to researching the sixth man of a No. 12 seed, everyone is striving for a perfect bracket. This year the stakes are elevated, going from competitive bragging rights with friends to a possible billion-dollar prize from Warren Buffett.
While March Madness is always exciting, it is a heightened experience when USC makes the tournament. Unfortunately, the last few Trojan teams have not come anywhere near the Big Dance. Barring a truly historic run of epic proportions in the Pac-12 tournament this week, it looks like this year’s squad will be spectators as well.
It’s a shame for the Trojan faithful because the most exhilarating March moments for USC have come when the team has made waves in the conference and NCAA tournaments. While it may seem like ancient history now, USC enjoyed a successful run from 2007-2011, earning a berth in four out of those five years.
Those years were replete with exciting moments. The 2007 unit reached the Pac-10 championship game and used that momentum to carry them forward to blowout victories over Arkansas and a Kevin Durant-led Texas in the Big Dance. The 2009 team’s run was equally thrilling. Coming back from a double-digit deficit in the second half of the conference tournament championship against James Harden and the rest of the Arizona State Sun Devils was arguably the most stirring win in recent Trojan history.
It is no secret that almost every perennial powerhouse college program churns out NBA players annually. So it should come as no shock that the most successful USC teams were stacked with elite talent. A common thread among those Trojan teams was a roster full of players who would eventually go on to make meaningful contributions at the professional level.
Nick Young, Taj Gibson, O.J. Mayo, Demar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic are all enjoying lengthy tenures in the NBA. Those players combined with solid college athletes such as Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis to form the foundation of all the recent Trojan tournament teams.
Though those former Trojans were good in college, no one could have predicted that all five would flourish professionally. In fact, the five have been so successful that, outside of UCLA, USC has had arguably the best track record of producing pros in the Pac-12 over the last decade. Whether it is USC’s facilities, the coaching or the exposure to intense media scrutiny, basketball players leave college ready to excel at the next level. This is strange because though USC has had moderate success, it pales in comparison to the likes of UCLA, Arizona and, to a lesser degree, Washington.
The Trojans mentioned above weren’t necessarily all stalwarts in college either. Young was an elite scorer with a ton of raw potential, but he was also the player who cost USC dearly with boneheaded plays in close losses to Washington State and UCLA. Though he still hasn’t completely grasped the concept of defense with the Lakers, he is now one of the most lethal one-on-one scorers in the NBA.
Gibson was an imposing interior presence at USC, using his length and timing to disrupt countless shots. In fact, if he hadn’t picked up his fourth foul against North Carolina late in the second half of the 2007 Sweet 16, the Trojans might have beat the heavily favored Tar Heels. Yet he was also a 21-year-old freshman who had attended three different high schools, and projected as a tweener on the NBA level. Now he is playing an integral role for the Chicago Bulls as they continue to defy basketball logic and win games.
Mayo was heralded as a star from the time he was a seventh grader, averaging 20-plus points a game for a varsity basketball team in Kentucky. While he was impressive at USC, his tenure can be summed up by his debut game at Mercer. He scored 32 points but USC lost by 15. His best games rarely coincided with Trojan victories. Though not as successful as others in the 2008 draft class, Mayo has still averaged double-digit scoring every year he has been in the league.
DeRozan was another top recruit for USC. Though he was a physical specimen with incredible leaping ability as a Trojan, his range was severely limited in college. Now he is an NBA all-star. Vucevic was a raw freshman when he came to USC. He developed methodically into a double-double machine by his junior season. Very few predicted he would have a similar level of success professionally, yet his career averages in the NBA are even better than what they were in college.
It’s impossible to say if these are isolated incidents, or evidence of an emerging trend for USC basketball. As a fan, I hope it’s the latter, as head coach Andy Enfield has already displayed a propensity for recruiting top talent. If USC can develop a reputation for having a pipeline to the pros, then March will be even madder going forward.
Jake Davidson is a freshman majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs every other Monday.