Waiting outside the auxiliary gym at the Galen Center a week before the season opener, I watched as the men’s basketball team filed out into the hallway after practice.
With this being my first year at USC and having never really paid close attention to college hoops, I was largely unfamiliar with the roster and probably recognized no more than two or three players as they walked by me.
It’s fair to say the majority of casual basketball fans around the country would have felt the same way.
USC basketball has long been an afterthought in Los Angeles, hidden in the shadows of two professional teams and “that other” school in Westwood. The Trojans may have served as the city’s de facto pro football team (prior to the NFL’s Rams moving in next season), but spending money and time to watch a mediocre basketball program with three better alternatives was something reserved for die-hard fans.
Perhaps, with Wednesday night’s convincing 89-75 victory over the rival UCLA Bruins on the road — another signature win in a season chock full of surprising triumphs — the tide is changing.
If so, then it is a high tide. This is a team maturing, developing and improving in front of our very eyes, and their last four games stand as hard evidence.
When I interviewed several players and head coach Andy Enfield prior to the season, each spoke individually about the team’s inability to win close games contributing to its 23-41 record over the last two seasons. They chocked it up to inexperience, growing pains and a rebuilding process. Junior forward Nikola Jovanovic told me they lost “seven to eight games” simply because of their rawness; USC was the fourth youngest team in the country last season and indeed lost eight games by five points or less. Sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin stressed that their poor record was not indicative of who they were, that they “weren’t getting blown out” and with better execution, they would be able to win close games.
But talk is cheap, and excuses even cheaper. Despite the young core having another year to grow and mature both physically and mentally, a turnaround season was far from a guarantee. In a preseason media poll, USC was picked to finish tenth in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive season, a sign that few people outside of the coaches and players felt much would change with the program this upcoming season.
Two months later, the Trojans sit in second in the Pac-12 with a record of 4-1 in conference play and 15-3 overall, their best start in more than 20 years. They are about to be ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2008. And their journey from “young team with potential” to “legitimate threat” is speeding along with a fervent pace.
A look at their recent stretch of games, and you’ll see why. Against Washington three days into the New Year, the Trojans reverted back to their former selves, blowing a 22-point second half lead in a heartbreaking 87-85 loss to the Huskies. Considering it was just their second conference game, the narrative was easy to predict — the Trojans were still the Trojans, talented yet raw, still unable to finish games.
Somehow, in less than two weeks, that narrative has flipped. Since the loss in Seattle, USC has beaten three quality conference teams, each win getting progressively more satisfying.
First, they finally held off an opponent, hanging on in a 75-65 win over Arizona State in a game that saw the Sun Devils rally from a 17-point deficit to claw within two late in the second half. But the Trojans closed the game on a 10-2 run, showing signs of resiliency and maturity that good teams possess. Then came the instant classic, four-overtime win over No. 7 Arizona, a marathon that more than proved USC belonged in the conversation.
And lastly, Wednesday night’s win at Pauley Pavilion, a complete game from beginning to end. After UCLA jumped out to a 17-13 lead, USC outscored the Bruins 35-13 to end the first half. Up by as many as 21 points in the second half, the Trojans did not waver when UCLA made a run to cut the deficit down to single-digits. Every time the Bruins made a push, the Trojans had an answer, whether it was by drawing a foul or making a three.
A win over UCLA for the first time in three years is significant, no doubt. And while the Trojans’ path to legitimacy is far from complete, with still 13 regular season games remaining in a very tough Pac-12 conference, one thing’s for certain: people know who this team is now.