A 5-foot-11, 160-pound kid from Etiwanda, Calif. arrived at USC in 2014, when the men’s basketball program was at rock bottom.
“They’re an up-and-coming program,” the young point guard told ESPN after choosing the Trojans over more established powerhouses like UCLA, Kansas and Indiana. “They told me they would bring No. 11 out of retirement so I could wear it during my Trojan career.”
With 4,060 minutes played, 1,556 points scored and 685 assists dished out, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin is now nearing the end of his college career. And his No. 11 jersey, previously retired for Bill Sharman (who played at USC from 1946-50), will soon return to the rafters never to be worn again — this time, permanently.
Saturday’s game against UCLA marks McLaughlin’s final hurrah at the Galen Center.
“I keep thinking about it, but it probably won’t hit me until I’m there,” McLaughlin said. “But it’s a bittersweet moment. I’ve had some really good times here.”
When a player of McLaughlin’s caliber and impact concludes his/her collegiate career, it feels like the end of an era. McLaughlin arrived when USC basketball was considered more of a joke than a Pac-12 contender (as the Trojans will be when the conference tournament begins next week). USC finished dead last in the Pac-12 with a paltry 2-16 conference record the year before he joined the team. In the aftermath of a crippling NCAA scandal involving star player OJ Mayo, USC hadn’t recorded a winning record or made it to the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season.
McLaughlin was supposed to change the culture of USC hoops, and he accomplished that mission with aplomb. He’s led the Trojans to three-straight 20-win seasons and two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. With a strong showing in the UCLA game and the upcoming Pac-12 Championship, he can help his team punch its ticket to a third-straight Big Dance — marking only the second three-peat in school history.
But his legacy on the court is equally important as his legacy off of it. For the past four years, McLaughlin has been the face of USC basketball. He’s walked around Galen like the mayor, greeting everyone he encounters.
“I talk to all the ushers that work the games,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve built strong relationships with them, DJ Mal-Ski, going around shaking hands with the fans after the games is big. It’s everything that goes into Galen … [there are] a lot of relationships I’ve built on and off the court.”
Over the course of his career, there have also been plenty of special moments on the court. Most notably, when he tied the Pac-12 single-game assists record with 19 against UC Santa Barbara in December. Or when he nailed two half-court buzzer-beaters against Cal and Arizona State in 2017. And who could forget when he led the Trojans to an upset victory over the Lonzo Ball-led UCLA Bruins at Galen Center last year?
“When we played [UCLA] here my junior year it was pretty fun,” McLaughlin said. “We had a blackout game and we won pretty big … It’s always a good game competing against them and the rivalry speaks for itself.”
On Saturday, he has one final chance to dazzle the Galen Center crowd and one final chance to defeat crosstown rival UCLA (unless they meet again in the Pac-12 Tournament).
Entering last year’s home game against the Bruins, McLaughlin led the Trojans off to an impressive start but the team remained untested. This time, both teams carry similar records (UCLA is 19-10, while USC is 21-9), and are each vying for a Tournament spot in March.
With improper benefit allegations swirling around USC again (according to a Yahoo Sports report, junior forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright may have received cash from sports agency ASM) a win over UCLA can redeem a season full of turmoil. It makes sense that for McLaughlin, whose clutch performances have anchored USC for four years, his final home game is also his most pivotal to date.
“It’s very fitting,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a rivalry game … We’re on the bubble, we need a win and we’re also right there competing for a Pac-12 Championship still. It’s very big and for it to be against UCLA, it’s even bigger.”
During his time at USC, McLaughlin changed the program’s culture, turning a perennial laughingstock into a consistent winner, but the future of USC men’s basketball is cloudy. With a pending FBI investigation and possible NCAA sanctions on the horizon, his career has been bookended by scandal.
Still, he believes he’s left the program in a better place than where he found it back in 2014 as a wide-eyed recruit straight from Etiwanda, Calif.
“I hope [I’ve improved USC basketball],” McLaughlin said. “And in everybody else’s eyes, I hope [I have]. I’ve done all I can for this program. I’ve left everything out there on the court.”
Both McLaughlin and the program’s futures are uncertain, but one thing is guaranteed; on Saturday he will leave everything out on the Galen Center court one last time.