Two weeks ago, the men’s basketball team may have looked forward to Saturday’s matchup against Washington, hoping to use the game to build momentum heading into the postseason. With the Trojans stumbling to the finish line, however, their date with the Huskies is no longer an opportunity, but a mandatory assignment.
Once a foregone conclusion, USC’s spot in the NCAA tournament is now in jeopardy. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi released his latest projections on Thursday, listing the Trojans as one of the last four teams into March Madness. The tipping point came last weekend, when USC squandered a double-digit lead to lose at Arizona State. The Trojans may need the victory over Washington — possibly more at the Pac-12 tournament next week — to secure a berth in the Big Dance.
Shelby Mast, who runs the website Bracket W.A.G. and works as USA Today’s bracketologist, weighed in on the Trojans postseason prospects.
“[The loss] affected them quite a bit,” she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They better not lose [to the Huskies].”
Missing out on March Madness would spell disaster for head coach Andy Enfield and his squad. The program has made impressive strides since his arrival in 2013, making it into the tourney for the first time in his tenure last year. USC came into this season hoping to build on its first-round exit versus Providence in 2016, but it may not get the opportunity to do so if it fails to execute against Washington.
But amid the noise surrounding the team’s postseason prospects, the Trojans are keeping their heads down.
“We’ve all been playing basketball for a little while. We know the ins and outs, the politics behind everything,” junior guard Elijah Stewart told the Los Angeles Times. “We just know if you have a certain amount of wins, you don’t have to be concerned about the bubble. If we keep going and make strong strides in the Pac-12 tournament, I feel like we should be fine.”
USC may have caught a break, too, as the Huskies’ projected first-round NBA draft pick, freshman guard Markelle Fultz, is expected to miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury. Fultz led his team with 20 points and six assists against the Trojans when they visited Seattle last month, and Washington (2-15 in Pac-12 play) faces a tall challenge without its star. The team is already in the midst of an ugly 11-game losing streak, which USC will look to extend this weekend.
With the Trojans on the bubble for the NCAA tournament (and unlikely to earn an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 championship), their postseason fate will ultimately be determined by the selection committee, and Enfield appealed to USC’s strength of schedule heading into the regular season’s final weekend.
“That decision is not up to us or me,” Enfield said. “I really have no idea. I think a lot depends on teams around the country. We have a good RPI: UCLA’s ranked third [in the AP top 25], and we beat them. SMU’s ranked 14th, and we beat them. So we have some really good wins.”
A strong victory over Washington would further strengthen the Trojans’ resume — and Enfield hopes his team can also add a few more wins next week in Las Vegas.