It makes sense that on the rainiest weekend in my nearly three years at USC, the mood of the USC men’s basketball team could be described as dour. After a Thursday night loss to Oregon State, the Trojans vowed to go out Saturday afternoon and win the final home game of five seniors’ college careers. But just as the Trojans kept up with their Pac-12 opponents, this time the Oregon Ducks, for the first 30 minutes, they faltered in the final 10. One field goal in the final nine minutes and a back-and-forth contest turned into a 15-point Ducks win.
It’s the same scene we’ve seen during most of the Trojans’ 15 Pac-12 losses so far. The team puts together a half of low-turnover, watchable and coherent basketball. And the team also compiles a long period, whether it be seven, 10 or 20 minutes, in which their opponent pours in buckets while the Trojans bumble on offense and become a sieve on defense, leading to the Trojans’ eventual defeat.
The issue is not that it happens. Every team blows basketball games at some point or another. The issue, instead, is that it’s happening almost every game. It’s certainly not intentional, but USC is breeding a culture of losing at basketball that goes beyond any one player on the court. Two years after winning just one conference game in a 6-26 campaign, this year’s Trojans head into their final two Pac-12 games with just one win over a conference foe.
“Everyone is frustrated that we haven’t won more games, but it’s not from a lack of trying or effort,” first-year head coach Andy Enfield said. “If you had asked us before the season, we would have expected to win more, but we’re playing some tough basketball teams.”
You’ll likely see pigs fly over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before you have a coach or player admit they believe in moral victories. Yet it feels as if the Trojans’ season has turned into finding positives among the biggest negative: a loss. The Trojans did stay with Oregon for 30 minutes. They did cut a 26-point Oregon State lead to five. They did fight with then-No. 1 Arizona for a half. Those are my words and not those of anyone in the program, but as the season winds down, the sentiment seems to be, “We’ve been in almost every game,” as senior point guard Pe’Shon Howard said after the loss to Oregon.
The bigger issue heading forward is whether Andy Enfield’s squad will know how to win. Byron Wesley will head into next season as the only Trojan to see significant minutes at USC beyond this closing season, and he’s been part of programs that have gone 30-63 during his nearly three years here.
The talent level should be improved next fall, but the late-game experience is desperately lacking. USC only had one comeback this season worthy of praise, when they played at Dayton in December. The other two, against Northern Arizona and Cal State Bakersfield, were cases of an inferior team that the Trojans allowed to stick in the game much longer than anticipated. It’s meant more of a divot of a truth than an insult, but this group of Trojans has not shown the ability to win tough games at a college level.
The issue also lies in leaders, or in the Trojans’ case, a lack of them. Enfield mentioned the strange dynamic behind USC’s five seniors this season; it was harder for them to become instant leaders because two were only at USC for one season (Howard and D.J. Haley), and two more played at USC for two seasons (Omar Oraby and J.T. Terrell). And as we’ve seen over the past two years, Terrell and Oraby have been anything but consistent on the court, while Terrell has also had to fight to stay on it, missing eight games in November and December due to academic ineligibility.
Next year, the same issue might rear its ugly head. Wesley will be the veteran, but he leads by example on the court rather than vocally. The voice of the team might have to be Julian Jacobs, a freshman guard averaging 6.6 points and 3.6 assists, or incoming point man Jordan McLaughlin. Next year’s team will be young, and plenty of evidence has shown us that youthful teams struggle down the stretch of close games.
Considering that the current campaign is three, maybe four games from being over, the hope has to shine on next year. But though there’s excitement for new players to put on Trojan jerseys, there’s also the intangibles, such as leadership and finishing games, that need to be harped on as much as the actual playbook if the Trojans are to avoid another grueling season.
Jacob Freedman is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Four Point Shot,” runs every other Monday. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jacob at firstname.lastname@example.org.