Scandal may define season

Eric He | Daily Trojan

When the USC football team traveled to play Washington State last September, a Cougars fan in line to enter Martin Stadium held up a sign that read “Unsolved Mysteries” across the top. Below it was a line that read, “Can USC win without cheating?” and below that were cutouts of USC sports figures involved in infamous scandals since the turn of the century, including Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll and O.J. Mayo. At the end was the newest addition: Tony Bland.

It was a clever sign. But beyond that, the fact that a Washington sports fan knew enough about USC athletics to make that sign put into perspective the national attitude surrounding this program. And the Bland scandal has simply added fuel to the fire, implicating USC in a nationwide corruption case that has rocked the college basketball world.

Fast forward to last Saturday at the Coors Event Center in Boulder, Colorado. The Colorado men’s basketball team had just upset Arizona and Tad Boyle, their head coach, was speaking postgame. One reporter asked if Boyle had any extra satisfaction beating Arizona considering its involvement in the same corruption case.

“Absolutely,” Boyle said. “They recruit very, very well. USC has recruited very, very well. The two most talented teams in our league from top to bottom are USC and Arizona. So, hell yes, there’s extra satisfaction … Got great respect for [USC head coach] Andy Enfield. But to answer your question: Hell yes.”

You don’t have to look too closely to find the subtweet in that statement. USC and Arizona are the Pac-12 teams involved in the FBI probe, which accuses assistant coaches in both programs of funneling money to recruits or relatives of recruits. At Arizona, it was Emmanuel “Book” Richardson. At USC, it was Bland. Both are awaiting their hearing dates in court.

Meanwhile, Bland’s alleged participation in the scheme could have lasting consequences for the USC basketball program, both present and future. This season, it has cost the Trojans perhaps their best all-around player in De’Anthony Melton, who has been held out of all 17 games this season due to his connection to the case. They have missed Melton, who is athletic and skilled offensively but can also play lockdown defense.

For a Trojans’ season that has teetered back-and-forth, often in the wrong direction due to lack of consistency, Melton’s absence has loomed large. There is a #FreeDMelt movement — Melton’s sister started an online petition and his teammates and coach have been supportive. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was seen walking out of the locker room after USC’s loss at Stanford on Sunday wearing a t-shirt with that hashtag.

But there’s nothing USC can do knowing it may have to forfeit any game Melton plays in if the NCAA later rules him ineligible. There’s also nothing the University can do about Taeshon Cherry, the other USC player reportedly named in the allegations. Cherry was a splash commit for Enfield, arguably USC’s best signing in a decade and a surefire headliner for next season. But, last month, he decommitted.

To pit all the team’s problems on the corruption scandal would be too much. Surely, with a squad full of returning upperclassmen, a couple of potential NBA big men in Metu and fellow junior forward Bennie Boatwright, USC should be in a much better position than it is right now.

Perhaps its first three losses — all nonconference — to Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma were understandable. But to fall to Princeton at home is inexcusable. To drop its conference opener to Washington — picked to finish second-to-last in the Pac-12 — is befuddling. And Sunday’s loss, where USC blew a 15-point second half lead and lost at Stanford on a game-winning shot from beyond halfcourt, was the cherry on top of a bitter sundae.

It’s not like the team lacks  talent. And it’s not like they didn’t have the hype — the Trojans’ No. 10 ranking before the season was their highest preseason ranking since Watergate. Yet, USC’s RPI (rating percentage index) before Wednesday’s game against Colorado had dipped to 56th in the nation. As it stands, it’s questionable if this team would even qualify for the NCAA Tournament, much less fulfill the Final Four predictions that some experts placed upon Enfield’s squad.

USC is struggling on the court with consistency, with closing out games, with staying focused for 40 minutes. And off the court, the Bland scandal might be taking its toll. After practice on Tuesday, Enfield prepared a statement for reporters on Boyle’s comments, which accused Boyle of not knowing all the facts. Enfield said he was “disappointed,” calling the jab “unfair” to the program.

On one hand, Enfield was sticking up for his players, and that’s good. But in the same vein, the focus was not on the game — a conference game against Boyle’s Buffaloes that USC desperately needs: but instead on the scandal, a scandal that may come to define what has been a frustrating 2017-18 season for the Trojans.

Eric He is a junior majoring in digital journalism.