The early months of the 2017-18 campaign wreaked havoc on the USC men’s basketball program. Returning with all five of last year’s starters and adding three key recruits, USC appeared poised for its best season in decades and sustained success for years to come. However, the September scandal involving former assistant coach Tony Bland rocked the program to its core, leaving questions surrounding two players’ eligibility and even the job security of head coach Andy Enfield. USC hired former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to investigate the program’s NCAA compliance.
In November, minutes before USC’s season tip-off, the program announced sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton would sit out indefinitely as a consequence for his embroilment in the Bland investigation.
The Trojans ranked 10th in the AP Preseason Poll — their highest starting mark since 1974 — and played well in their first couple games, including an overtime win at Vanderbilt when senior captain guard Jordan McLaughlin scored a career-high 35 points.
Then, USC started a brutal stretch of losses against Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma. The Trojans continued to sputter throughout December, losing to Princeton and Washington at home.
However, they had some bright moments, too. On Christmas, the Trojans won the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, and McLaughlin tied a longstanding Pac-12 record for assists in a game with 19 versus UCSB on Dec. 17.
Nevertheless, for the AP voters and USC basketball fans, the losses certainly drowned out the preseason expectations for the program. On top of it all forward Taeshon Cherry, USC’s highest-ranked recruit in a decade, decommitted from USC and has since committed to rival ASU.
Perhaps morale bottomed out after the Stanford loss on Jan. 7. After USC blew a 15-point lead in ten minutes, McLaughlin scored a reverse lay-up to give USC a 2-point lead with less than two seconds on the clock. Tragically, Stanford’s freshman guard Daejon Davis scored a magical 55-foot shot as time expired to gift the Cardinal a victory.
In the moment, his half-court heave seemed to suck the life out of Trojan basketball. Forget top-10 aspirations. After a 2-2 start to conference play, even an NCAA Tournament bid seemed in jeopardy.
Since, the Trojans have gone 6-0. In the past three weeks, the Trojans beat Utah for the first time since 2012. On the road, they swept the Oregon schools and won in Eugene for the first time since 2009. They are second place in the Pac-12, a half-game behind No. 9 Arizona and two games ahead of their next opponent, perennial rivals, UCLA. They appear safe off the NCAA Tournament bubble and again received votes in Monday’s AP Poll.
So, what changed? How did the Trojans turn the season around?
One could cite Enfield’s decision to switch the rotation. Over the last six games, redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron has started in place of sophomore Jonah Mathews. Over that span, Mathews, who had been averaging 8.5 points per game, has led USC in scoring twice. Undoubtedly, he has freshened USC’s bench, which on Sunday outscored UC Berkeley’s bench 31-4, even though the usual sixth man Nick Rackocevic had to start in place of an injured Bennie Boatwright.
“Our players are resilient,” Enfield said of his players’ adaptability in new roles.
McLaughlin added that coming off the bench gives Mathews, an underclassman, the ability to see a bit of the other team’s strategy before he has to make key decisions.
“That helped me when I was coming off the bench as a freshman,” McLaughlin said.
High energy on defense is another reason for the team’s turnaround. After bouncing back from the Washington loss, Enfield said, “The team was simply tired of playing below its potential.”
After allowing Washington to shoot 67 percent from the floor, USC has held its opponents to 43 percent from the floor.
“We’re playing great defense. In man-to-man and in zone,” Enfield said after Sunday’s game. “We are forcing a lot of turnovers, which gives us a chance to stay in the game until we start to shoot the ball better.”
But the paramount reason for USC’s outburst of energy is not tactical. Rather, USC has found its identity through the trials and tribulations of the Bland scandal. Indeed, the same events which initially deflated the team have become a source of inspiration. Since sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton was officially ruled ineligible for the season on Jan. 11, the Trojans have played with greater unity and purpose.
Without hope of Melton returning, the players and coaches finally realized that their current lineup would be the one available for the rest of the season. Although not ideal, the finality of the decision to keep Melton ineligible has strengthened everyone’s resolve to perform well knowing that a knight is not going to rescue them in the midnight hour.
Some of USC’s best have funneled their resentment about the Melton decision into more passionate play on the court, for better or worse. Junior forward Chimezie Metu, for instance, has always had a reputation as a violent player thanks to his rim-rattling slam dunks. Recently, though, his play has become noticeably unsettled, as he has received three technical fouls and an ejection since conference play began. Metu is one of Melton’s closest friends; his temper could suggest that he is playing to avenge his pal.
Junior forward Bennie Boatwright, too, has engaged in some horseplay, for which he has garnered a couple technical fouls and also an ejection. Although Metu and Boatwright’s comportment does not necessarily reflect well on USC or add to the Trojans’ win probability, their rough style of play has galvanized the esprit de corps of their teammates and fans.
“When [Metu] is screaming, he gets us all fired up,” redshirt junior guard Shaqquan Aaron said.
When the Trojans take the court, there is a sense of USC basketball versus the world. With some conference foes elevating their smack talk against the Trojans or circling the USC matchup on their calendar, USC could have backed down, intimidated. Instead, they have harnessed their rivals’ negativity. The veteran team — used to the underdog label — started to feel at home when their dismal start to the season pushed their backs against the wall, and existential questions about the program cast doubt on the entire legitimacy of this squad.
“Our chemistry has improved throughout the season,” Aaron said. “It is better to have your losses at the beginning.”
With Melton gone for good this year, the Trojans are playing with an intensity they lacked earlier in the year. Although he still attends each game, Melton, in some sense, has become a martyr for USC, motivating the Trojans. The rest of the team does not want to look at him and think of what could have been. They are determined to win, hell or high water, Melton or not.