In the blink of an eye, college basketball season has once again returned. And while fans of the college game and commentators across the nation have bought into the hype for this year’s USC men’s basketball team, there’s still no surety in saying the Trojan student body has done the same.
USC will open the 2017-18 regular season as the No. 10 team in the nation. This is the program’s highest preseason ranking in more than four decades, and also the highest ranking for the team since 1992, when USC finished the season ranked eighth nationally.
The hype for this season’s squad is palpable. Coming off of a program-record 26 wins last season — which saw the Trojans win two NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 2007 — many feel this USC team has the potential to compete with the nation’s elite. It finished just one win away from a Sweet 16 berth in last year’s tournament, dropping an 82-78 heartbreaker to Baylor.
The depth the Trojans will bring back from last year’s team is what has followers of the program most optimistic. USC’s top eight scorers from last season are returning, including the Trojans’ veteran nucleus of senior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart and junior forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu.
While today’s standard in college basketball is to leave a program after one year as a top NBA prospect, this Trojan basketball team is about as veteran-heavy as there is in the nation. In addition to its upperclassman leaders, USC has promising youth that look ready to contribute immediately in the coming season. Sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton put together a promising freshman campaign that saw him earn an All-Pac-12 Defensive Team Honorable Mention. The Trojans also look to receive key contributions from redshirt sophomore guard Derryck Thornton, who transferred from Duke last year, and true freshman wing Jordan Usher.
But while USC has caught the eye of many on paper, the Trojans still have other contributing factors on their own campus that may slow down the hype train.
The USC football team is currently ranked at No. 15. At 8-2 overall this season, the Trojans are primed to make a run for a Pac-12 Championship, which the program has not won since 2009. USC is one of only four schools nationally to currently have both its men’s basketball and football teams ranked in the top 25 (Miami, Michigan State and Notre Dame are the others).
As the football team wraps up its regular season, likely plays in the Pac-12 Championship and qualifies for a bowl game in the coming weeks, the men’s basketball team will be playing its non-conference schedule. USC basketball will inevitably be the white noise playing softly in the background as the football team wraps up its 2017 campaign.
USC’s non-conference schedule will begin this Friday night with a home contest against Cal State Fullerton and will run through Dec. 25. The Trojans open conference play against Washington at the Galen Center on Dec. 29. By then, USC football will be nearing the end of postseason play.
When classes resume for the spring semester on Jan. 8, rest assured that the campus spotlight will finally be adjusted on this basketball team. If the Trojans can replicate the non-conference effort they gave last season (they reeled off 13 straight wins to open the campaign), then the hype train will pick up speed.
It will be interesting to see if the Trojans’ early excitement this season will translate to higher turnouts at the Galen Center. USC’s home arena has a maximum capacity of 10,258, but the Trojans averaged 4,625 fans per home game last year. If the Trojans are still ranked within the top 15 when the spring semester commences, I’d expect this number to grow.
When it comes to preseason rankings and projections, players and coaches alike are pretty hushed and private in their discussions. However, it’s no secret that the Trojans’ battle for relevance will begin on their own campus.
Angel Viscarra is a junior studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Viscarra’s Vice,” runs Tuesdays.