Grinding Gears: USC hoops can still make it to March

Eric He | Daily Trojan

After practice one day before the season began, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin talked about the heightened expectations that came with being ranked the preseason No. 10 team in the country.

“We’re not going to be ranked No. 10 and blow it all away,” McLaughlin said.

With seven games left in the regular season schedule, the jury is still out on pretty much everything for USC men’s basketball. A season that began with its hype train at full speed ground to a halt with three straight nonconference losses, a defeat to Princeton and then a lackluster Pac-12 opener against Washington.

But then the Trojans caught fire, winning eight of their next nine games, their only loss coming on a halfcourt buzzer beater by Stanford. They beat Colorado, Utah and Cal by double digits. They pulled off close wins over Oregon and Oregon State, and then redeemed themselves against Stanford. And they took a huge step toward solidifying their NCAA Tournament bid.

Still, there is work to do. USC lost to UCLA last Saturday in a game they should’ve won, if not for immaturity on the part of sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic and poor late-game execution. With or without De’Anthony Melton, it is clear at this point that the Trojans are not as strong as the No. 10 ranking they were handed preseason.

They can, however, do their best not to “blow it all away.” Right now, the best case scenario for this team would be to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, and go from there. Expectations can shift over the course of the season, and considering the start to this year, simply making the tournament would be a win. To do that, USC must get through this pivotal weekend ahead against the Arizona schools in the desert.

On Thursday, the Trojans will play an upstart Arizona State program that has faded in Pac-12 play but burst onto the scene early in the season with several impressive wins. On Saturday, they face No. 13 Arizona, the Pac-12 favorite.

These two games, combined with last Saturday’s loss to UCLA, constitute perhaps the most important stretch of USC’s remaining schedule. The Sun Devils may be faltering in conference play, but still sport the most dynamic offense the Trojans will see this season. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring offense, while the Wildcats, after a poor start, have won 16 of 18 games, lead the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage and have emerged once again as a Final Four hopeful.

History does not bode well for USC on this road trip. The Trojans have been swept on their last five sojourns to the desert and seven of the last eight years. The last time they beat both Arizona teams in the same season was in 1985.

This history underscores just how big these two games are. At the very least, USC needs a split — and if it can’t pull the upset at Arizona, at least make it a close game. Because if the Trojans lose both games, there are few opportunities left to climb back up in the tournament picture.

Heading into Thursday, the Trojans rank 45th in RPI. That should be good enough to qualify for the tournament — both ESPN and CBS currently project USC as an 11th seed. Both opponents this weekend rank ahead of USC in RPI — Arizona State is 44th, Arizona is 16th.

After these two games, the Trojans won’t have a chance to really build on their resume. Their only big test will be the season finale against UCLA, which is 56th in RPI. Otherwise, games against Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah won’t move the needle.

USC has been through a lot this season — the preseason hype, the early struggles, the injury bug that has hit star junior forward Bennie Boatwright again. And, of course, the ongoing FBI investigation that led to the firing of assistant coach Tony Bland and the absence of Melton all season has lingered in the back of everyone’s minds.

Perhaps this team, which some thought would be a sleeper to make the Final Four, won’t be the one that brings USC hoops back to glory. The Trojans won’t fully live up to their No. 10 preseason ranking. But they can’t blow it all away, and a couple of wins this weekend would go a long ways toward avoiding that.

Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.