COLUMN: ASU loss a massive blow for Trojans

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I was that guy on Sunday afternoon attempting to be the voice of reason to those anxiously huddled around the television screen. I was trying to pacify a situation that I had no clue would conclude so tragically.

Despite a 10-point lead for the Trojans with 3:57 remaining in regulation against Arizona State, I was surrounded by colleagues muttering, “Please don’t choke, please don’t choke.”

“There’s no way — absolutely no way,” I thought to myself silently. I couldn’t conceive USC pulling off a major late-game meltdown to drop a much-needed game against Arizona State. With a guy like sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright out there who can nail free throws when he has to late in games, there’s no way that the Sun Devils would even get within a possession of the Trojans, right?

What ensued was depressingly ironic, as it was Boatwright who wound up making the most lethal mistake for the Trojans late in the game.

A 3-pointer from Arizona State’s Kodi Justice cut the Trojans’ lead to 82-81 with 17 seconds left to play. On the following inbound pass, Boatwright — who finished Sunday tied with a game-high 22 points — had the chance to put the game on ice by just getting the ball to a teammate’s hands safely.

But the Trojans embodied Murphy’s Law late in the game on Sunday: If it could have gone wrong for USC, it did.

ASU’s Tra Holder stole the inbound pass from Boatwright and went on to get fouled on a shot attempt. Holder knocked down the game-winning free throws for the Sun Devils and increased USC’s losing skid to four games.

The loss seriously hurt the Trojans’ hopes for a strong finish to the regular season. USC finds itself on a four-game losing streak that has spanned the last two weeks of play; its last win came on Feb. 9 against Oregon State. The Trojans’ struggles in Tempe continued Sunday, as USC has lost its last five games played at the Wells Fargo Arena. The collapse in the desert dropped USC to 8-8 in conference play this year. With only a pair of games remaining in their regular season, the Trojans will need some help from Utah and Cal to finish anything higher than sixth in the Pac-12 standings.

According to Kenpom, a popular sports analytics websites, USC was rated the luckiest team in the nation this season using an algorithm that takes into account a team’s strength of schedule, win margin and other factors.

I spoke with head coach Andy Enfield about his team’s unflattering top ranking following a team practice last week (before this weekend’s pair of losses).

“Wow, I actually thought we’d be considered one of the unluckiest teams in the country this year,” Enfield said with a slight smile. “I mean, we were without our leading scorer (Boatwright) for 18 games, and we’ve had a lot of young guys — who probably didn’t deserve early playing time — fill in and do a great job.”

Enfield has a very good argument for claiming his team has been unlucky this season. In addition to dealing with Boatwright’s prolonged MCL injury, USC has faced the gauntlet of gauntlets schedule-wise — especially over the last two weeks. This current four-game losing streak, which includes three losses to three
top-six ranked teams, has wrecked a majority of the momentum the Trojans had in early February. 

The Trojans are the only team in the nation this season to play three consecutive games against three opponents ranked sixth or better nationally (No. 5 Oregon, No. 6 UCLA and No. 4 Arizona).

Think about it: The Trojans were 21-4 on Feb. 9 before their brutal recent stretch brought the buzz to a halt. Two weeks ago, I and many other media members saw USC as a sleeper team that could potentially make some noise in March, especially with a proven Cinderella-story coach like Enfield at the helm (Enfield famously guided 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013.)

Following these troublesome two weeks, in which USC has lost its past four games by an average margin of 14.3 points per game, the Trojans are one more bad weekend away from putting their  NCAA Tournament spot in significant jeopardy.

In his most recent Bracketology report released on Monday morning, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected that USC will be a No. 11 seed in the West bracket of the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans have gradually slid down Lunardi’s predictions, as they were projected as a No. 7 seed as recent as Feb. 10.

USC will conclude its regular season this week as it hosts Washington State and Washington at the Galen Center. A few weeks ago, fans viewed these last two games favorably. They saw matchups with the Cougars and Huskies as a pair of very winnable games on USC’s home court. Some may have even viewed this week’s season-ending homestand as a springboard into postseason play.

Washington week will feature the Trojans playing in two not only must-win but also should-win contests. However, right now, it feels like the winnable games prove to be the most troubling for USC.

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