The season seemed to be a lost cause.
USC had already lost by 16 points at home against Texas A&M in November, collectively shooting 28.2 percent from the field.
In December, there was the ugly loss to Princeton in the Staples Center, when the Trojans were outscored 17-7 in overtime.
Then, the team started conference play in subpar fashion. They dropped a game to Washington and lost a heartbreaker to Stanford one week later. The Stanford game should have been over when senior guard Jordan McLaughlin made a tightly contested layup with three seconds left.
But then disaster struck.
The Cardinal’s Daejon Davis nailed a 3-pointer from half-court at the buzzer. It offered the perfect metaphor for a season filled with shortcoming after shortcoming for the Trojans.
Another agonizing loss, a disappointing 2-2 Pac-12 record, plus the announcement of sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton’s yearlong suspension should have indicated the season was over. Perhaps the team was vastly overrated despite all the star power returning from last year’s bracket-busting team. Perhaps the addition of Duke transfer redshirt-sophomore guard Derryck Thornton and highly-touted recruit freshman guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. were not enough to propel USC into a new elite realm. Perhaps Melton’s versatile, swiss-army-knife style of play was more integral to last year’s success than initially thought (Melton averaged 8.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals in the 2016-17 season).
But winning tends to have a way of silencing questions.
And the Trojans have done nothing but win since their last loss to Stanford. As they prepare for an emotional rematch with the Cardinal on Wednesday, the team rides a four-game winning streak and sits at second place in the Pac-12 behind Arizona.
A week ago, the idea of any post-season action beyond the Pac-12 Tournament seemed like just a dream.
Well, now the tables have turned.
Much of USC’s turnaround is a result of improved shooting at the guard position. Senior guard Elijah Stewart was the team’s primary sharpshooter in 2016-17. He led the team in 3-pointers with 78. This year, he limped into Pac-12 play, going 1-9 from long range against Washington, Cal and Stanford.
Now, Stewart has found his rhythm.
He shot three out of four shots from deep in the Utah win on Jan. 14 and went 4-8 on 3s against Oregon State a week later. Stewart’s resurgence has taken pressure off of junior forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright offensively and gives McLaughlin another option to kick out to on the wing.
Along with Stewart’s help offensively, after the Stanford loss, head coach Andy Enfield made the decision to bench sophomore shooting guard Jonah Mathews for redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron.
But Mathew’s benching was not a demotion. He took the sixth man role and started paying dividends immediately.
After not making a single 3-pointer in three straight Pac-12 games, Mathews drilled six combined against Colorado and Utah, leading the team with 17 points against the Utes. Now, the Trojans can deploy a dynamic scorer on the second unit, preventing them from dropping off when McLaughlin and Stewart exit the game.
“[Mathews] has played great basketball all week,” Enfield said after the Utah game. “It was one of his best games tonight.”
In the beginning of the season, USC showed a lack of depth and usually struggled whenever Boatwright, Metu or Stewart struggled. Now, the team is receiving key points from the bench courtesy of both Mathews and freshman wing Jordan Usher.
Usher finished the team’s non-conference slate, averaging 2.0 points per game, but after the four-game winning streak, he’s up to 3.9. He capped off an excellent string of games with a career-high 14-point performance against Oregon State. After all the hype surrounding O’Bannon Jr., now it seems like Usher was the true gem of the 2017 recruiting class. It looks like he could be the team’s X-factor as they head deeper into conference play.
With the re-emergence of Stewart coupled with the improving play of Matthews and Usher, Boatwright and Metu no longer have to carry the offense on their giant shoulders — and that’s a good thing for the Trojans as they move forward.
Metu’s points per game average has steadily increased over the last four games (17.1), but he’s been much more active as a rim protector, recording a ridiculous 12 blocks over that span.
Meanwhile, Boatwright has been able to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to shots. He attempted an average of 14.6 shots against Washington, Cal and Stanford. Since the winning streak began, he’s taken 11 per game.
USC now heads into the teeth of its schedule with difficult matchups against Stanford, UCLA, No. 16 Arizona State and No. 14 Arizona.
It’ll be a make-or-break run for the Trojans, but at least they’ve gotten hot at the right time.