Big opportunities don’t come around too often.
Three weeks ago, the men’s basketball team, fresh off its first appearance in the AP Top 25 since 2008, headed to Oregon for weekend road contests against the Ducks and Beavers with a chance to solidify or even improve upon a robust No. 21 ranking.
Instead, the Trojans fell flat, losing to both teams and dropping out of the rankings as quickly as they entered them.
“We worked so hard to be a really good basketball team and to get the recognition that we deserve,” redshirt junior guard Katin Reinhardt said to the Los Angeles Daily News last month. “We saw that ranking and then we lost it.”
Now, after sweeping a three-game homestand with strong wins over Washington State, Washington and UCLA, the Men of Troy find themselves back in the rankings and in a similar position as they were in mid-January.
Ranked 23rd in the nation in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll, the Trojans once again will hit the road for a couple of games over the weekend, this time against Arizona State and No. 17 Arizona.
Adding to the parallelism, the quality of the opponents is alike.
Arizona State is a lot like Oregon State — a team that, on paper, the Trojans should beat. Arizona is comparable to Oregon as the more established ranked team against whom a road loss would be understandable, but the Trojans should be able to hang with.
USC has already beaten both the Sun Devils and Wildcats at home on Jan. 7 and 9, a weekend capped off by the classic four-overtime win over then seventh-ranked Arizona that turned a lot of heads around college basketball.
All they’re looking for this weekend is a repeat formula, except on the road. Here lies another massive opportunity not only for head coach Andy Enfield and the Men of Troy in their quest to become not just relevant but also to remain in the conversation as legitimate Pac-12 contenders.
Because let’s be honest: nobody expected the Trojans to even sniff the rankings this season, much less be points behind perennial powerhouse Kentucky this deep into the campaign. The Trojans are even one spot ahead of Texas, which was one Buddy Hield spectacular buzzer-beater away from upsetting No. 3 Oklahoma on Monday. If USC were to play the Sooners today, the result would probably not be very pretty.
But the thing about an up-and-coming team is that nobody — not even themselves — knows their true potential, and that should be very scary for any of the NCAA’s top dogs should the Trojans make it to March Madness.
Speaking of which, the Trojans are picked to enter the NCAA Tournament as high as a No. 4 seed in the Midwest bracket in USA Today’s latest bracketology predictions updated on Thursday, while Duke and Arizona are both projected to be sixth seeds — a development that would not have even been plausible prior to the season.
First, though, the Men of Troy must take care of business in their remaining eight conference games. Enfield has continuously stressed that his team should stay in the moment.
“Now we’re ranked again, and we’re on the road again, so we will see if we have learned anything from last time,” Enfield said, according to The Register Guard. “You can easily lose on the road in this conference whether you’re ranked or not, whether you’re overconfident or not because the road is so hard in this league.”
Multiple appearances in the rankings are yet another indication that the Trojans are moving rapidly in the right direction. This weekend presents a chance for the Men of Troy to take it a step further and stay in the Top 25 for consecutive weeks, stay ahead of Arizona and move closer to overtaking Oregon atop the Pac-12 and keep building their reputation as an up-and-coming program everybody wants to see come March.
Opportunity is knocking for the Trojans, and they better grasp it before it’s in their rear view mirror.
Eric He is a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Fridays.