After tough UCLA loss, USC plays in Pac-12 Tournament

Ling Luo | Daily Trojan
Raking up points · Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic drives in for a layup against UCLA. He’s averaging 7.5 points per game off the bench.

The USC men’s basketball team fell short by double-digits in its season finale against UCLA last Saturday at the Galen Center, 83-72. A 34-point performance from UCLA All-Pac-12 junior guard Aaron Holiday propelled the Bruins to their fourth consecutive victory over the Trojans.

“We just needed to be more locked in and play better defense,” said USC senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team Monday. “We’ve watched the tape [from the UCLA game], and we’re aware of what we need to do better going forward.”

Yet despite the loss, the Trojans did finish the 2017-18 regular season in second place in the Pac-12 conference standings. The second-place conference finish is the highest for the USC basketball program since 2002.

By finishing near the top of the Pac-12 regular season standings, USC clinched a first-round bye in this week’s Pac-12 Tournament, which will be held in Las Vegas from March 7 to 10. The Trojans will take on either Washington, a No. 7 seed in the tournament, or No. 10 Oregon State in the quarterfinal round on Thursday.

“It’s a great accomplishment for us to finish second-place in the Pac-12,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said, “And getting that bye is really helpful for our team.[Having the bye] helps save some of our guys’ legs, and it should build up our confidence to play well on Thursday.”

Regardless of the opponent, USC is familiar with both Washington (20-11 overall, 10-8 in Pac-12) and Oregon State. In its Pac-12 season opener on Dec. 29, USC lost to Washington at the Galen Center, 88-81. The Trojans swept Oregon State (15-15, 7-11) in the regular season series between the two teams. USC topped the Beavers at the Galen Center on Feb. 17, 72-59, in a game that saw USC senior guard Elijah Stewart score 28 points.

“Whichever team we play, they’re both very physical, have great guard play and have really put together some solid seasons,” Enfield said.

In the eyes of many, the Trojans’ regular season-ending loss to UCLA (20-10, 11-7) put a sting into USC’s hopes of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season. Despite being a second place team in the Pac-12, many NCAA Tournament bracket projections have USC as a current bubble team when it comes to qualification.

In the March 6 version of ESPN’s Bracketology, USC is projected as a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament and is slated for a play-in game against Texas.

Trojan players and coaches alike feel that the team has already proven itself worthy of qualification for the NCAA Tournament.

“We can only control what we do on the court,” Enfield said. “We’re very proud of our team and where we are right now: 21 wins, second in the Pac-12 and a chance to go out and compete in Vegas this week.”

Junior forward Chimezie Metu thinks a strong performance in the Pac-12 Tournament will be essential.

“I think second place in the Pac-12 should be enough to get you into the NCAA Tournament,” said Metu, who was also named to the All-Pac-12 First Team on Monday. “All that last four in, first four out, whatever. We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about what we have to do.”

Should the Trojans come away with a victory against either the Huskies or Beavers on Thursday, they will advance to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal game, which will be held on Friday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.