USC downs Utah on the road amid NCAA scandal

Redshirt sophomore guard Derryck Thornton drives to the basket against Oregon State. In Saturday’s game, he provided a spark off the bench scoring 7 points and recording three steals. Austin Paik | Daily Trojan

Cutting through the noise that has disrupted Pac-12 basketball over the past 72 hours, the Trojans stayed laser-focused on the court against the Utah Utes on Saturday. The Trojans (21-9, 12-5) led by as many as 17 in the first half. After the Utes (18-10, 10-7) cut that lead to 6 in the second half, USC responded with with a 16-0 run to take a 71-49 lead. Ultimately, the Trojans won 74-58 thereby completing their first-ever road sweep of the mountain schools.

On Friday morning, the game seemed like a distant horizon amid news that rattled the USC program, the Pac-12 Conference and numerous programs across the nation. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was named in a Yahoo Sports report about payments by agents to college basketball players or their family members. His eligibility was immediately put into question. Yet again, the state of Trojan basketball was up in the air. Junior forward Bennie Boatwright was also named, but he is out for the season with a knee injury.

That morning, hours before tip-off, USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann released a statement saying that Metu would play after an investigation launched by USC’s Office of Athletic Compliance deemed him eligible.

“Based on the available documents and a number of interviews, we determined that Chimezie is eligible to play in today’s game at Utah,” Swann said in the statement. “If additional information becomes available, we will act accordingly.”

Metu was the centerpiece of the Trojans’ win in Utah, amassing 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. He did not look fazed by the swirling allegations.

Nevertheless, the tumultuous state of the conference might have fueled the afternoon’s chippy and physical bout. Both teams garnered multiple technical fouls. It was a statement game. Not only were each team vying for position in the conference tournament but both are also on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, with the state of Arizona basketball in disarray, both USC and Utah knew that the winner of their match-up could win the Pac-12 if the NCAA strips Arizona of wins.

Last week, Arizona’s star guard Allonzo Trier was ruled ineligible after testing positive for a banned substance. Yesterday, Arizona head coach Sean Miler was named in an report that alleged FBI wiretaps captured Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to an agent to secure forward Deandre Ayton’s commitment to Arizona.

Having defeated Utah, USC can win the conference if Arizona loses its remaining games and the Trojans defeat UCLA at home next Saturday. Last week, such a scenario was unthinkable, but now it’s up in the air. Miller did not coach Arizona on Saturday, Trier is still ineligible and Ayton might be, too. Amid the hullabaloo, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the Pac-12 over the next week.

On Saturday, the Trojans proved that speculation serves no business on the court. There, only execution matters. Against Utah, the team stepped up and every time the Utes posed a run, the Trojans rebutted with a run of their own.

The bench played exceptionally. Freshman forward Jordan Usher, who must fill part of Boatwright’s void, had a statline similar to what the veteran forward might have produced. He scored 14 points and made four-of-five 3-point attempts. Transfers redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron and redshirt sophomore Derryck Thornton each contributed seven points. In total, USC’s bench scored 31 points.

USC’s deep and well-rounded attack overwhelmed Utah’s defense. The Utes could not guard the fleet-footed Trojans man-to-man, nor could they defend the seams in their zone.

The Trojans should feel satisfied with their position in the conference, but if more bad news about Metu comes, then their postseason could be rained out by a foreboding NCAA thunderstorm of sanctions.