COLUMN: Upcoming game gives basketball major shot

Men’s basketball welcomes the Oregon schools to Los Angeles this week riding a four-game winning run. Though the Beavers and No. 5 Ducks will aim to snap it in the coming days, the Trojans’ current three-week streak has impressed me even more than their 14 consecutive victories to open the season: USC could have easily compiled a losing record from its games against Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State. The Bruins were a heavy favorite before getting upset at the Galen Center, and USC has struggled away from home under head coach Andy Enfield (13-28 since the 2013-2014 season). Yet the Trojans came away with wins in all of those games, perhaps putting the rest of the nation on notice in the process.

But victories over the unranked Washington teams may not be enough to convince everyone that the USC team that showed up against UCLA was for real; after all, the Trojans have also gotten resoundingly thumped at Oregon and Utah. That makes this weekend massive for Enfield’s squad. A win over the Beavers is a must, but Oregon’s visit on Saturday is an opportunity. Last year’s Trojan side stumbled across the finish line, going 4-of-7 in the final month of the season, and they paid the price in the NCAA tournament, dropping to a No. 8 seed, getting matched up with a Kris Dunn-led Providence team and exiting in the first round. In truth, it likely wouldn’t have mattered much anyway, as No. 1 seed and eventual finalists North Carolina breezed past the Friars two days later — but it was a bitter pill to swallow nonetheless.

If history isn’t to repeat itself, USC needs to carve out an easier path for itself in March Madness, and that starts with a strong finish to the regular season. Another top-10 upset at home would be one heck of a resume builder. But more importantly, the Trojans run the gantlet after Oregon, playing three straight games on the road against No. 9 UCLA, No. 10 Arizona and Arizona State. Almost any team in the country might expect to go 1-2 against those teams, if not worse, which means a loss to the Ducks on Saturday could send USC into a tailspin heading into postseason play. A win, on the other hand, might just give the team key momentum to pull a surprise or two during its road trip.

It isn’t easy beating Oregon, though. Enfield has actually never triumphed over the Ducks since taking the reins at USC — even within the friendly confines of the Galen Center (where Enfield owns a 43-20 record). Having said that, there is buzz surrounding his program that the Trojans may finally be ready to make the leap to national relevance. What better way to announce their arrival than by finally edging fifth-ranked Oregon?

From this perspective, sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright’s return from long-term knee injury couldn’t have come at a better time for the Trojans. Boatwright is arguably his team’s biggest offensive asset, but his size also gives USC’s undersized defense a boost, as evidenced by his seven rebounds at Washington State. This also takes some pressure off sophomore forward Chimezie Metu, who had spent long stretches as the Trojans’ sole big man on the floor during Boatwright’s absence. With a large contingent of USC’s roster playing its first season with the Trojans, there may have been concerns about how smoothly Boatwright would reenter his new-look team, but his career-high scoring night off the bench last week emphatically put such doubts to rest. It’s tough to say whether or not his recovery will be enough to push the squad past an Oregon side that beat USC by 23 points in Eugene earlier this season, but we’ll know the answer soon enough.

Perhaps it was a little presumptuous to call Saturday’s game an opportunity; it could also be a precarious tipping point for a still-developing USC team. But a win over the Ducks would firmly establish the Trojans on the national radar. You simply couldn’t ignore them if they claimed the scalps of two of the top three teams in the Pac-12 standings. A strong follow-up road trip would be a bonus but not necessary; USC would already be cemented as a leading conference team.

All things considered, however, the Trojans would do well to ignore me and not put the cart ahead of the wagon. At the end of the day, even an upset on Saturday would be for naught if Enfield’s squad can’t take care of business tonight against Oregon State. The beaver hunt comes first — then we can move on to the Ducks.

Oliver Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs on Thursdays.