COLUMN: Last weeks of season imperative for USC men’s basketball

As much as it may irk those in the land of Troy to acknowledge, this is the truth: UCLA is an NCAA title contender this season and will be the heavy favorite in Wednesday night’s rivalry game at the Galen Center.

Despite the bitter reality, however, Trojan fans will be forever hopeful that history finds some way of beautifully repeating itself when USC takes the floor against the now eighth-ranked Bruins.

Back in 2008, a scrappy Trojan team — led by standout point guard O.J. Mayo (yikes) — upset a title-contending and fourth-ranked UCLA team on the road, 72-63.

This year, the Bruins (19-2, 6-2) will enter the Galen Center coming off a 96-85 conference loss at the hands of then-No. 14 Arizona.

The Trojans will tip off against No. 8 UCLA after taking on a pair of Pac-12 opponents from Arizona this past weekend. USC split the weekend series, defeating Arizona State but falling short in a late comeback bid against Arizona. In Sunday’s victory over the Sun Devils, junior guard Elijah Stewart went off for 29 points and hit seven 3-pointers.

It’s awfully hard to find merit in any loss, especially a loss to a high-ranking conference foe like Arizona. But while the box score for USC’s 73-66 loss against the Wildcats last week was not all that intriguing, the Trojans exhibited an explosive offense capable of making game-changing runs.

The Trojans trailed Arizona by as much as 22 points with 11 minutes remaining in regulation. After going on a 28-11 run late in the second half, USC was able to pull within a possession of the Wildcats, 67-64, with a minute left to play. As mentioned, despite the very intriguing comeback, USC was unable to come back and knock off the Wildcats; as they say, the hot streak was simply too little, too late for the Trojans.

But hey, here’s a silver lining: Give USC five more minutes of regulation in that contest, and it’s not all too crazy to think that the Trojans could have come away with a win over an Arizona team that is trending upward and is now ranked seventh in the nation.

Wednesday night’s matchup with the Bruins marks the beginning of the home stretch for head coach Andy Enfield’s team. There are now only 10 conference games remaining in the 2017 season.

Currently residing in sixth place in the Pac-12 standings, USC (17-4, 4-4) is in need of a strong finish if it hopes to bolster its seeding for the Pac-12 Tournament and, beyond that, the NCAA tournament.

While the thought of upsetting UCLA on Wednesday night is glorious (and a bit of a stretch, realistically), USC fans ought to be patient and put things into perspective when looking at the remainder of the team’s schedule: Four of USC’s final 10 games this season will come against teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll.

The first of these critical matchups will come this week at the Galen Center against UCLA. The Trojans, who defeated UCLA on three occasions last season, will also be traveling to Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 18 to take on the Bruins. You’ve got to think that USC would feel really good about itself if it were able to steal at least one of these games from the guys playing at that other school in Westwood.

An additional thought: If USC gave Arizona (a team who just defeated UCLA) all it could handle last Thursday, who’s to say the Trojans aren’t capable of posing a dangerous threat to the Bruins on Wednesday?

The Trojans will wrap up their top-10 slate in February, going on the road to do battle with No. 7 Arizona (Feb. 23) and No. 10 Oregon (Feb. 11) in the final month of the regular season.

With all that being said, USC must capitalize on this season by winning all of the games that — on paper — they should be able to come away with. The remainder of USC’s schedule includes conference opponents such as Washington State (10-9, 3-4), Washington (9-10, 2-5), Arizona State (9-11, 2-5) and Oregon State (4-16, 0-7). These teams have a combined record of 32-46, and all are currently sitting in the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings.

Sporting a 17-4 record with 10 games remaining, I’d say that USC is in a prime position to exceed the 20-win mark for the second consecutive season. Unless the Trojans fail to execute in the winnable games they have over the next month, Enfield’s team should finish better than the 21-13 record it had last season, which generated much hype for USC men’s hoops.

To make things simple, here’s the recipe for USC: Win the games you should win, and steal one of these games against a high-ranking opponent like Arizona, Oregon or UCLA. If the Trojans can gather these ingredients, then a healthy ranking entering tournament play will be stewing.

In his most recent Bracketology report, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi ranked USC as the 35th-best team in the nation. And if March Madness were to commence today, Lunardi projects that USC would head to Indianapolis as the No. 9 seed (playing No. 8 seed TCU) in the South bracket in the first round.

With less than 50 days remaining till Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament, the question begs to be asked: Where will USC finish in the rankings?

The ball is in their court.

Angel Viscarra is a sophomore studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, Viscarra’s Vice, runs on Tuesdays.