Grinding Gears: Now, USC needs to earn its place

Eric He | Daily Trojan

As the USC men’s basketball team prepares to begin play in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament against Oregon State on Thursday, it must do so knowing that a loss could put their NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy. And that would be an embarrassment.

It is true that head coach Andy Enfield has had to deal with a lot this season. The expectations were high right off the bat, with a No. 10 preseason ranking and some giving the Trojans a shot at making the Final Four. With all of their key upperclassmen returning and several NBA prospects on the roster, this was supposed to be the year that USC jumped from a program with simple March Madness goals to one with national championship aspirations.

But now, after a slew of controversies — replete with involvement in an FBI sting that resulted in the departure of De’Anthony Melton and the firing of associate coach Tony Bland — and untimely injuries, the Trojans find themselves in the same position as last season: fortunate just to be included in the 68-team field.

As it stands, the Trojans are projected by most to be part of the tournament. Their odds, though, are far from guaranteed after a disappointing loss to UCLA on Saturday at the Galen Center. The loss epitomized the season for USC: The Trojans had control of the game and should have won it, but could not close the deal. A win would have probably locked down a spot. Now, they’ll have to earn one in the conference tournament.

Consensus is that USC will need at least two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament to satisfy the committee. There is a new format this year to choose teams for the tournament, a format that splits a team’s wins into four quadrants that vary based on difficulty and whether the win came on the road or at home, with Quadrant 1 wins being the most valuable. It will take up too much space to explain the system, but just know this: USC could use a few more Quadrant 1 wins on its resume.

This is why the team will need at least two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament. Beating Oregon State will do little to move the needle. USC should hope that Utah reaches the semifinals so that a win would give the Trojans another Quadrant 1 win. The Trojans already beat Utah this year on the road, and they’ll be playing at a neutral site this time.

If the stars align and USC beats Utah, they should be in decent shape. From there, a victory in the Pac-12 Championship, which would guarantee a spot in the tournament, would be the cherry on top.

What happened to USC’s basketball team this season is similar to what happened to the football team in that both only have themselves to blame for their troubles, yet were victims of a supposedly weak Pac-12.

In football, the Trojans were passed over for a spot in the College Football Playoff despite having the same amount of losses as Ohio State. But they were docked for posting “easy” wins against bad teams in their own conference.

The Pac-12 also does not have the best reputation in basketball. Of the 12 teams, only two — Arizona and USC — have much of a national profile, and both are entangled in the aforementioned FBI investigation. The Trojans notched a 12-6 record in conference play and finished second in the conference for their highest finish since 2002, but that won’t do much considering the committee will not put a team’s conference ranking into consideration when selecting tournament teams.

Enfield belabored that point, telling reporters after Saturday’s loss that “sometimes common sense has to prevail.”

That’s a fair argument. But this team cannot make excuses if it ends up on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. Despite the scandals, the injuries and whatever else went wrong this season, there were very winnable games that were lost, very simple steps that could have been taken to secure a tournament spot long before Thursday.

Instead, USC’s postseason future is uncertain. And for a team with this much preseason hype, making the tournament is the very least it can do to salvage this year.

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