Pac-12 men’s basketball has come to a low point, facing the possibility of being the first Power 5 conference to have just one bid in the NCAA tournament. Injuries have wrecked teams like Oregon, who lost star freshman center and likely top-five pick Bol Bol to a season-ending foot injury. Arizona, a conference powerhouse this millenium, lost a number of recruits to the FBI investigation surrounding them, among other teams.
No team in the conference has had the talent and production to separate themselves from the pack as an elite team in college basketball, as each program has at least four losses already this season.
But that is what makes USC basketball’s struggles so baffling. The Trojans are 9-8 on the season and 2-2 in conference play, having been the living embodiment of average since the season tipped off. Every time they seem to have momentum, they flop. After winning four straight games, including their first two conference contests, they’ve dropped their last two, including a dismal 81-60 loss at Oregon on Sunday. The Pac-12 is there for the taking if USC could just hang around, but right now it doesn’t look capable of hanging with the better teams in the conference.
The Trojans have too much experience and ability to already be lagging behind in a truly mediocre conference. Their entire starting five is made up of upperclassmen with good pedigree. Rakocevic and Mathews, along with senior forward Bennie Boatwright and redshirt senior guard Shaqquan Aaron, saw significant minutes for last year’s squad that went 24-12, finished second in the conference and made it to the conference championship game.
In addition, redshirt junior guard Derryck Thornton was so highly regarded coming out of high school that he went to Duke, one of the highest ranked programs for decades, before transferring to USC in 2016. This team has significant talent, but it simply hasn’t been able to put it all together.
To be fair, USC has had to deal with key players missing time from the jump. Injuries took their toll from the preseason on, as freshmen guards Kevin Porter and Elijah Weaver have both missed multiple games. Boatwright also started the season hampered by a knee that was still recovering from offseason surgery.
However, injuries are not an excuse, because other teams in the Pac-12 have dealt with similar, or worse, adversity. They should have been able to compete with the Ducks, especially with Bol out, and they lost to Oregon State, despite the Beavers’ leading scorer, redshirt junior forward Tres Tinkle, missing the game due to injury.
It’s hard to see things improving now that the trademark USC sports dysfunction has fallen on the team. Sophomore forward Jordan Usher transferred to Georgia State last week after being suspended indefinitely. Now Porter, the team’s most talented player and a definite lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft, has been suspended indefinitely and was absent for the loss to Oregon. Head coach Andy Enfield said Porter was suspended for “conduct issues” and that his future with the program would be re-evaluated this week.
If Porter is lost for the season, the Trojans lose all hope for finding that much-needed identity. Fans saw Porter’s dazzling offensive talent before the season and hoped that his scoring ability could carry a Trojan team somewhat lacking in shot-creators. But from injuries that kept him off the court to freshman mistakes which limited his impact between the lines, Porter was never able to become that crucial go-to guy for USC. Now, he may never get his chance.
Enfield has done a good job bringing the Trojans to prominence since taking over in 2013. He improved the program’s recruiting to the point that it currently has the second best 2019 class in the nation, trailing only Arizona. The Trojans won at least 21 games in each of the previous three seasons, heightening discourse about the basketball team at a definite football school.
But with better results come higher expectations. Perhaps the team will improve drastically next year with better injury luck and an even more talented class of freshmen than the Trojans welcomed this season. But the current iteration of the team is undeniably underperforming; for USC fans looking at a wide open Pac-12, it has to be a gut punch that their team hasn’t been able to take advantage.
Aidan Berg is a sophomore writing about USC sports. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs Tuesdays.