Viscarra’s Vice: Hyped-up Trojans still have a lot to prove

Angel Viscarra | Daily Trojan

Through the first three contests of its 2017-18 season, the No. 10 men’s basketball team hasn’t always looked like the top-10 team it’s been projected to be this season. While the Trojans have gotten off to a 3-0 start this campaign, the manner in which two of the wins have come has been concerning.

USC is coming off a 93-89 overtime win against Vanderbilt  on Sunday night. The Trojans’ dramatic victory saw senior guard Jordan McLaughlin hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 28 seconds remaining in regulation to force the extra period of play. McLaughlin’s career-high 35 points against the Commodores helped propel USC to its third win of the young season.

To USC’s credit, Vanderbilt is a formidable program that has qualified for the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons. And it certainly was impressive watching the Trojans erase a double-digit deficit against the Commodores with 9:37 remaining in regulation.

But for the second time in as many games, USC has relied on scoring rallies late in halves to tie the game or take a small lead.

Blowout victories over non-conference opponents are what USC basketball fans are looking for early on this season — as a way to confirm whether the team’s preseason hype is tangible or simply smoke and mirrors. The longer the Trojans delay in delivering these blowout results over what are considered to be lesser opponents, the louder the skeptics will begin to clammer that this team is nothing but hype.

Against North Dakota State (1-2), USC found itself tied with the Bison with 6:37 left in regulation. The Trojans utilized a 13-5 run late in the game to secure the 75-65 win over an underwhelming North Dakota State team. They also needed a 12-2 run to finish the first half to tie the game at 33 entering the intermission. A 15-0 run to finish the first half against the Commodores gave the Trojans a narrow, 35-34, lead at halftime against them.

Now, the Trojans did deliver a punishing, top-10 caliber victory over Cal State Fullerton (1-2) to open the regular season. In a game that saw junior forward Chimezie Metu record his first double-double of the season (18 points, 10 rebounds), USC doubled up Fullerton in an 84-42 victory at the Galen Center.

But even through three games, many questions still loom over the heads of this basketball team. On the court, we’ve seen the team overcome sluggish starts with a quick-strike offense that is as lethal as any in the nation, but there’s a new question emerging regarding the team’s effectiveness on the boards, as USC was out-rebounded by the Commodores Sunday, 38-28.

However, the Trojans’ biggest question marks are the ones that they face off the court. As the preseason hype for USC piled on, the program was hit with controversy as assistant coach Tony Bland was arrested in September due to his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal that involved funneling college players to agents. Nothing casts a dark cloud over a program with national title aspirations like the type of scandal in which Bland is implicated.

And while Bland has been placed on leave and no NCAA sanctions have been issued against USC yet, it seems this legal incident is affecting the Trojans’ basketball team on the court early on this season. The long-term ramifications of Bland’s iniquities have yet to be determined.

In the short term, USC has held sophomore forward De’Anthony Melton from playing in any of the team’s games thus far this season because of his potential connection to the scandal. Anyone who watched the Trojans last year knows Melton’s impact on the roster. Several scouts have projected Melton as a potential first-round talent in the years to come. Melton’s freshman year saw him lead the Pac-12 in steals (69) and average 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game; he received an honorable mention for the All-Pac-12 Defensive First Team.

At this point, you can either see the glass half-full or half-empty as a USC hoops fan: You may think the team hasn’t put together enough dominant performances early on (sounds like a football problem for USC, too). Or you can look at things from the angle the Trojans have shown off some resilience in coming back to win their last two contests in heroic fashion.

One thing that is certain for this program is that it has a relatively important slate of games coming its way. USC will host Lehigh on Wednesday night before taking on No. 16 Texas A&M on Sunday at the Galen Center. The Trojans’ tango with the Aggies will be an early barometer game for this highly ranked USC team.

USC also has an upcoming rematch with SMU looming on Dec. 2. The Trojans eliminated the Mustangs in a first-round upset during last season’s NCAA Tournament, 66-65. The Trojans’ upcoming non-conference games will be vital in establishing the team as a contender, and not a pretender, going forward this season.

At the end of the day, especially in college basketball, wins are wins. While style points can be the icing on top of a program’s resume, maintaining an unblemished win-loss record is every top-ranked team’s aspiration during the non-conference schedule.

If USC can replicate its efforts last season — that is, go undefeated during non-conference play — then it will establish itself as a team to be reckoned with come Pac-12 season.

Great teams find ways to win close games. USC has found ways to win close games early on. But is USC a great team? Only time will tell.

Angel Viscarra is a junior studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Viscarra’s Vice,” runs Tuesdays.