Someone once told me that time is a flat circle — that everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re doomed to repeat over and over again.
Okay, admittedly, that pseudo-philosophy didn’t come from the sanest of sources — a suspected murderer on HBO’s excellent new crime thriller True Detective said it — but fans of USC’s women’s basketball team might be quick to adopt such an outlook on life.
The Women of Troy haven’t received a berth to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, but have come agonizingly close to snapping that streak several times. When I covered the team as a beat writer during the 2010-11 season, former head coach Michael Cooper stressed to me several times that the magic number USC had to reach to get a bid was 20 wins. It sounds pretty arbitrary, but it might just be true.
USC hired Cooper back in 2009 to universal praise — Cooper had won consecutive WNBA championships in 2001-02 as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, and looked primed to guide USC back to March Madness.
Instead, over the next four years, the Women of Troy only participated in a maddening cycle of near-triumphs and missed opportunities. In a span of three seasons from 2009-2012, the Women of Troy finished each regular season with 18 or 19 wins, with each year ending the same way — as one of the “last teams out” of the Big Dance. In 2012-13, USC finally reached the magic number 20 — but in the losses column. The Women of Troy only logged 11 wins, Cooper resigned and everything reset — perhaps a little too familiarly.
Hope presented itself this offseason in the form of new coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who captured two national championships while playing for USC from 1982-86. That sliver of hope became a beacon after the Women of Troy stormed out to a 14-6 start and were miraculously standing all by themselves in second place in the Pac-12 with a 7-1 conference record after upsetting then-No. 16 Cal on the road on Jan. 24. That 20-win goal looked easily attainable — all the Women of Troy had to do was win six of their last 10 games.
Since then, however, things have taken a turn for the worse. USC has lost six of its last eight, including devastating home losses to Washington and Washington State, two fringe bubble teams with whom the Women of Troy are now tied for fifth in the Pac-12 with a 9-7 conference record. In a conference that will likely put four teams in the NCAA Tournament, USC looks to be just one spot out of contention — again.
There is still some hope, though. ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Creme has USC as the headliners of a group labeled “Next Four Out,” five spots away from the field of 64 (the NCAA tournament for women’s basketball doesn’t contain the silly “First Four” as the men’s bracket does to expand the amount of bids to 68 — though it would certainly help the Women of Troy this season). That’s certainly within striking range — but USC really can’t afford to suffer a loss until the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, if then.
The squad’s two remaining regular-season contests — against Colorado and Utah, two bottom-rung teams in the Pac-12 — are absolute must-wins. As the probable No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, USC would then face hapless Arizona (5-22, 1-15) in the first round before playing the No. 4 seed (basically whoever loses between Arizona State and Oregon State in their matchup this weekend) in the quarterfinals.
If they win all four of those games, the Women of Troy will have finally reached the evasive 20-win plateau. Unfortunately, that still might not be enough — losses to lowly Cal State Northridge and mediocre Saint Mary’s have looked increasingly worse as the season has progressed, and USC’s best nonconference win is against Fresno State, a middling squad that won’t make the NCAA Tournament unless it clinches an automatic bid by winning the Mountain West tournament.
The Women of Troy do have that impressive road win over Cal — but might have negated that by conceding a loss to the Bears at home last week. USC also hung tough with Stanford at the Galen Center last week, eventually falling by five points, the Cardinal’s smallest margin of victory this season. But the NCAA Tournament selection committee claims it doesn’t take margin of victory into account, so the hard-fought loss will be just that for the Women of Troy — a loss.
A missed opportunity.
The Women of Troy are well-acquainted with that term after years of heartbreaking collapses down the stretch. But those painful memories could be wiped away with a massive upset over No. 1 seed Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament, which would virtually guarantee them an invitation to the Big Dance.
Ultimately, this season should not be regarded as a major failure even if USC misses out on March Madness once again. The future looks bright, as Cooper-Dyke has proven to be a solid recruiter, vaulting USC’s four-woman recruiting class to the top 15 of ESPN’s Class of 2014 rankings.
But the Women of Troy have drawn top recruits before. One of them, senior forward Cassie Harberts, is about to graduate as one of the program’s all-time most accomplished scorers. But a NCAA Tournament appearance is not among her many achievements. Is she doomed to repeat the experience of nearly missing out on the NCAA Tournament? Or are the Women of Troy finally ready to exit the seemingly never-ending circle of excruciating defeats?
Will Laws is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the Associate Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Laying Down the Laws,” runs every other Friday.