Jung Money: USC hoops is not a lost cause yet

Ollie Jung | Daily Trojan

There is a heuristic in human psychology called the peak-end rule. It’s a pretty logical, straightforward principle, which posits that people judge events based on basic criteria: the event’s “peak” — its most intense point, whether positive or negative — and its conclusion.

In sports, this phenomenon is even simpler because, as fans, the end of the event is almost always its peak. Sure, there are often plenty of incredible ups and downs throughout the middle, but it all culminates in that moment when the clock hits zero, the final out is made or what have you. Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Eagles scored a championship-defining trick-play touchdown to propel them over the New England Patriots. But as much as Birds fans may have enjoyed the Philly Special, the true peak came when Tom Brady’s Hail Mary fell to the turf incomplete and the Eagles won their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

By the same token, our memories of USC’s last football season peaked at its conclusion in Dallas, when we looked at the scoreboard reading 24-7 to Ohio State and realized that this anemic offensive effort marked Sam Darnold’s final start as a Trojan — that a season that had begun with hopes for a national championship had ended with USC getting outclassed in a de facto Rose Bowl. As unfair as it may be, the Trojans’ heroics against Texas, Utah and crosstown rival UCLA all went out the window. A four-month campaign was defined by three miserable hours.

But the peak-end rule can also be redemptive. It’s been a rough season so far for the USC men’s basketball team: The Trojans boast a strong 20-9 overall record and sit in second place in the Pac-12, but it has been a year marred by inconsistency, tough injuries and even tougher off-court distractions. USC is currently on the bubble for a spot in the NCAA tournament, and recent losses at UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State have turned a preseason Final Four dark horse into a potential NIT invite.

When suspended sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton announced on Wednesday that he was withdrawing from USC to pursue a professional career, it capped a week in which the Trojans also lost junior forward Bennie Boatwright to a knee injury for the rest of the season.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The team is currently riding a three-game winning streak (two of them coming sans Boatwright), and it has a chance to finish out the season very strongly with winnable games against Utah and UCLA remaining before the Pac-12 tournament. If they advance far in Las Vegas, the Trojans would undoubtedly be a strong candidate for a spot in March Madness.

They would be automatic qualifiers if they won the whole tourney — and in a season that at times teetered on disaster, USC’s first Pac-12 championship since 2009 would be nothing short of marvelous (given what the team has been through, plus its personnel shortage, anything beyond a berth in the NCAA tournament must be considered gravy). It would be fantastic to watch senior guard Jordan McLaughlin end his career with a conference title after he arrived in Los Angeles looking to lift a floundering program back into national relevance. And considering the state of the program when McLaughlin played his first game as a Trojan in 2014, it would be a miraculous turnaround — and one hell of a peak — to go from Pac-12 cellar dwellers to champions within just four years.

It’s doable, too. Every one of USC’s conference losses this season has been by single digits, save a 14-point loss at Arizona, which just lost star guard Allonzo Trier to suspension. The Trojans were actually weaker in Pac-12 play last year: They opened the campaign by going undefeated through their non-conference slate but then lost to Oregon (twice), Cal, Utah, Arizona (twice), UCLA and Arizona State. After all that, they still came within two games of playing in the championship game, dropping a narrow two-point loss to the third-ranked Bruins in the quarterfinals. In a weaker field than 2017’s, the Trojans have a very plausible path to glory this year.

No matter what happens, USC will never be able to shake the shadow of the Tony Bland-FBI scandal, which will hang over the program for many months to come. But with a strong finish to what many feared could be a lost campaign, the Trojans might just trick our minds into hoping — hoping that the team’s meteoric rise under head coach Andy Enfield remains on course, and that the difficult end to Melton’s collegiate career was an unfortunate one-off, not a harbinger of what’s to come.

Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.