Wow, what a run for the Trojans. Are we sure that that was only a five-day stint for the Trojans in March Madness? It felt like a season’s worth of buzz surrounding USC basketball was tightly compressed into less than a week’s worth of time.
If any team was going to bust my bracket this March, I’ve got to say I’m glad it was the Trojans who did it. I was 21-for-21 with my bracket predictions to open up the first round of the tourney when No. 11 USC topped No. 6 SMU in dramatic fashion last Friday — breaking my bracket in the process. Moral of the story: Never pick against your family, especially the Trojan Family.
And while USC’s glorious tournament run may be over, there’s no doubt that what the Trojans accomplished in the matter of a five-day span has the potential to send ripple effects into next season. For a university that bears “fight on” as its battle cry, it was very appropriate for the Trojans to pick up their pair of tournament wins last week in come-from-behind fashion.
USC overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat Providence in its First Four contest, and it powered back from a 10-point deficit against SMU to top the Mustangs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament just four days ago. And as its students floated on boats in Baja California and Cabo San Lucas for spring break, USC was floating atop the college basketball world for several hours last week after pulling off its dramatic 66-65 upset of SMU.
In their three NCAA Tournament games (played in Dayton, Ohio and Tulsa, Okla. over the span of five days), USC exhibited that it was the master of the comeback victory in college basketball this season. The Trojans’ comeback wins against Providence and SMU put USC at a national-best 13 wins when trailing by double-digits at some point in a game. At times during the regular season and even into the postseason, it felt like USC relished falling behind in games; it was like the Trojans “had them right where they wanted ’em” when their opponents took a lead into the half.
While the Trojans did not quite overcome their deficit in Sunday’s 82-78 season-ending loss to Baylor, it felt like USC was playing dead again in hopes of a second-half surge to victory.
Following Sunday’s game, Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “I actually joked with [USC head coach] Andy [Enfield]. I said, `You want to be up at halftime?’ and he said, `No, I want to be down.’”
But now it’s on to the offseason for USC, and the hype train for the 2017-18 college basketball season is already prematurely booming.
Coming off of a program-best 26 wins this season, USC will face higher-than-ever expectations in the coming winter. USC finished a modest fifth in the Pac-12 standings this season, but it showed an ability to compete with top-tier programs in the nation (think UCLA, Oregon and Arizona). And if the team is able to maintain its comeback ability into the coming season, nothing is out of the grasp of Enfield’s team in 2018.
But where the Trojans find their biggest upside for the future is in their youth. USC had no senior starters on its roster this season.
It’s no secret that the biggest task on Andy Enfield’s to-do list for this offseason will be retaining standout sophomore forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. If both of these players return for their junior season, one could easily project the Trojans as a prime frontrunner for the Pac-12 Championship next year.
USC has been in this spot before — well, kind of.
When USC finished last season with 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance, admittedly smaller but existent buzz began building up about what the Trojans could accomplish in the 2017 campaign. However, the Trojans were unable to retain valuable pieces in former standout guards Julian Jacobs and forward Nikola Jovanovic, who both opted to declare for the NBA Draft.
Who knows how much more grand this season could have been had the Trojans possessed Jacobs’ senior leadership and Jovanovic’s big frame?
Since taking the USC head coaching gig back in 2013, Enfield has done nothing but revitalize this basketball program. USC is undoubtedly back on the map as a program on the rise after appearing in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and picking up a pair of impressive tournament wins this past week.
While Enfield has shown an impressive ability to lure highly touted local recruits to USC (think Metu, Boatwright and junior guards Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin), he must now show his abilities in retaining these talents for the coming season. The test is not gaining star power, but retaining it.
Metu, who finished with a game-high 28 points in USC’s loss to Baylor, was selected as the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player this season. He finished the season averaging 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game (a team high).
Boatwright was the Trojans’ leading scorer in 2017, averaging 15.1 points per game. In USC’s First Four win over Providence, Boatwright recorded a game-high 24 points.
To think that there hasn’t been chatter concerning Metu or Boatwright’s future in the NBA would be incredibly naive. Both players have exhibited great upside through two seasons, and you just know that friends, family and likely even agents have been in their ears about the prospect of going pro this offseason.
“We want what’s best for our players,” Enfield said. “If that means to have an opportunity to go play in the NBA, that’s great. We’re all for that. If it means coming back to school and being a sure — and improving your opportunity to have guaranteed money or to be a higher pick, to be more NBA ready. But that’s not up to me.”
This offseason will be a pivotal one for USC, but its objective is actually quite simple. Keep your young nucleus of Boatwright and Metu to fuel the hype train, or fail to retain them and start looking for another dynamic youngster to carry your team.
Angel Viscarra is a sophomore studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, Viscarra’s Vice, runs on Tuesdays.