It’s hard to believe there was a part of the season when the USC men’s basketball team held a No. 10 rank.
Since the start of the season, the team has fallen to 11-6, taking losses to ranked and unranked opponents and is on its way out of the top 25. To be fair, it’s been a wild season of NCAA basketball so far, with teams like Kansas and Kentucky tumbling into double-digit rankings after dropping major losses both at home and on the road. Last week alone, three of the top five teams fell to unranked opponents, completely shifting the rankings yet again.
While it might be a topsy turvy season for the country as a whole, the Trojans have themselves to blame for their sudden and furious descent out of the national rankings.
The team entered the season with a full return of a talented crop of starters bolstered by several fresh faces. Before the first tip-off of the season, it appeared that the Trojans’ NCAA run of last season might continue and expand this year. Months later, even head coach Andy Enfield, who is known for standing by his players, seems at a loss.
“I usually take the blame for losses, and obviously every game goes on my record as a head coach,” Enfield said after an 81-88 loss to Washington. “But tonight, I was very disappointed in some of our upperclassmen, defensively. You can blame me for not motivating them or getting them to play up to their capability. They have to go home and look in the mirror and come back and play better basketball if we’re going to have a chance to win games in this league.”
The easiest way to analyze any team’s failures is to study its losses. Most often, the Trojans struggle when they dig themselves into a hole by allowing their opponents to build up a lead, often failing to reclaim it. In four of its six losses this season, USC entered the half with a deficit, launching a valiant comeback attempt only to fall slightly short.
Win or lose, the Trojans typically score less frequently in the first half than in the second, a habit that isn’t uncommon for any team, given that defense is best played with fresh legs. However, the team’s underperformance in the first half has been a consistent issue. Even in victories over teams such as New Mexico State, USC often enters the second half with a tie or a razor-thin lead.
Part of this deficit can be attributed to shooting. The Trojans are currently shooting below 50 percent from the field, but they have especially struggled against ranked opponents, highlighted by a dismal 28 percent performance against Texas A&M. Despite averaging 14 trips to the line per game, the Trojans have struggled similarly with free throws, failing to deliver in close-game situations. The team missed 10 of its 21 free throws in a loss against Cal.
At first, they weren’t necessarily bad losses. Dropping to now-No. 11 Texas A&M is not necessarily worth mourning, and falling to wonderkid Trae Young and now-No. 7 Oklahoma is a similarly manageable loss.
But the meltdown against Princeton, which resulted in a 10-point overtime loss at home to an unranked Ivy League team, followed by a home loss to Washington burst the bubble that USC belonged at the top of the NCAA. This weekend’s heartbreaker against Stanford reflected the truth — the Trojans just don’t have it this season.
“We should’ve taken care of business,” senior guard Jordan McLaughlin said after the team blew a 15-point deficit to lose to Stanford.
The captain repeatedly described the loss as “tough,” emphasizing how difficult it was to lose on a buzzer-beater shot. Yet he didn’t seem to have an answer for why the Trojans still haven’t learned to hang onto a lead.
The main issue with this team lies in the fact that even though the Trojans are winning games, they aren’t winning by enough to convince anyone of their dominance. Four of the team’s 11 victories have ended with single-digit leads. Winning by 5-point margins over teams such as Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State simply won’t cut it.
Although the Pac-12 isn’t the power conference it hoped to be at the start of the season, boasting only two top-25 teams, it will still provide consistent competition for the Trojans as they attempt to rebuild and salvage this could-have-been season. With a 2-2 record, the team sits in the dead center of the conference rankings. However, no Pac-12 team is undefeated in conference play even this early in the season, and no team in this conference is unbeatable in any way.
Perhaps the brightest light of this season so far has been McLaughlin, who averages 12.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. Although McLaughlin isn’t the team’s leader in points or steals, he remains the heartbeat of the Trojans on both offense and defense, and in big-game situations, he’s the leader that the team desperately needs.
Whether it’s notching 19 assists against UC Santa Barbara or putting up the would-be game-winner against Stanford, McLaughlin has proven his worth as the senior captain of the squad. And this is his team to turn around as the Trojans continue into conference play.
Their Final Four dreams might be distant, but for now, a conference title is a promising and achievable goal for the Trojans.