COLUMN: Men’s basketball still has plenty to prove in postseason

When children first learn how to walk, no one critiques or bashes them for being too slow. You’re just happy that the kids are walking. And once they nail the clumsy walk, everyone marvels at their ability to self-navigate, as unstable as children may be. But eventually, the children’s walk is expected to mature into a stable strut.

Right now, the USC men’s basketball team is a child who needs to begin straightening up his stride. After making last year’s NCAA Tournament and finishing with a 21-13 record, we’ve seen that this baby can take its first steps, but it’s time for the Trojans to stabilize their walk as they are on the verge of a second consecutive appearance in March Madness.

In other words, it’s no longer acceptable for the Trojans to continue just showing up to the Big Dance; it’s time for them to make some noise there. While the gut punch of a
first-round exit in last year’s tournament may have been acceptable, this season is the time for USC to establish itself as a respectable postseason threat.

The Trojans (23-8, 10-8) are coming off a pair of solid victories against Washington State and Washington to round out their 2016-2017 regular season. And as nice as two wins — albeit against mediocre competition — may look, the game on Feb. 26 against Arizona State raises concerns about this USC team entering postseason play.

That game between the Trojans and the Sun Devils just over one week ago saw USC blow a 10-point lead over Arizona State with 3:57 remaining; it was USC’s eighth conference loss of the season.

“We didn’t deserve to win that game [because] we didn’t play all 40 minutes,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “You’ve got to be able to close games out on the road.”

Despite the meltdown in Tempe, USC still enters the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday as a young, scrappy team with sleeper potential. A solid showing at the conference tournament this week could significantly brighten its postseason outlook.

After defeating Washington at the Galen Center, 74-58, on Saturday, the Trojans will square off with the Huskies once again four days later in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday.

A USC win over Washington in the opening round would pit the Trojans against a No. 3 UCLA team that won its final nine games of the regular season. If USC can replicate its Jan. 26 upset over the Bruins this week at the T-Mobile Arena, the Trojans would advance to the Pac-12 semifinals and likely boost their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, about March Madness: This is where USC can cement itself as a true “program on the rise.” In his most recent Bracketology report released on Monday morning, ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi projected USC as a No. 12 seed in the West bracket of the national tournament.

If Lunardi’s projections hold true, USC would square off against
No. 12 SMU in the first round of March Madness. USC defeated SMU earlier this season, 78-73, at the Galen Center on Nov. 25. Should the Trojans top the Mustangs for a second time this season, they will advance to the Round of 32, where they could face a team like No. 23 Duke. I ultimately feel that this — the second round of the NCAA Tournament — is where USC’s season will come to an end.

However, in the case that the Trojans shock the world and advance to the Sweet Sixteen or further, I’m not sure I would label USC a “Cinderella team.”

The regular season saw the Trojans pick up some solid non-conference wins against No. 12 SMU, reigning SEC-champion Texas A&M in College Station and a BYU team that upset then-No. 1 Gonzaga two weeks ago. In conference play, USC upset UCLA and  also played down-to-the-wire games against top-10 Oregon and Arizona teams. USC was the only team in the nation this season to endure a stretch of games in which they played three consecutive games against three opponents (Oregon, UCLA and Arizona) ranked in the top six nationally. The Trojans built up a credible regular season resume, which makes them a viable opponent for anyone in the NCAA Tournament.

Personnel-wise, the Trojans have the pieces to propel them to a deep postseason run. USC possesses solid leadership in junior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who finished the season playing arguably his best basketball of the season (averaged 19 points, 9.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game over his final two games). But USC’s shining star this season has undoubtedly been its youth. A pair of dynamic sophomore forwards in Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu is able to stretch the floor. Meanwhile, even the freshmen have gotten in on the action. Guards De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews and forward Nick Rakocevic have all significantly contributed in their first year.

At the end of the day, this season will be a success for the Trojans if they can pick up even just one NCAA Tournament victory — anything more would simply be icing on the cake. Back-to-back appearances in March Madness and a tournament win this season would add fuel to the Trojans’ expectations for next season.

A tournament win — that’s all USC fans should realistically ask for this March. Just one thing, USC: Don’t break the heart of Troy with a miscue on an inbound pass. We’ll take a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to knock us out of the tournament, no problem. Just please don’t screw it up on the inbound — tragically, we’ve been there and done that quite a bit this last year.

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