COLUMN: USC basketball still has a long way to go

I hate to say it, but there was an air of inevitability to the precarious position USC men’s basketball finds itself in today. Riding a five-game winning streak in early February, USC prepared to run the gauntlet: The Trojans would have to play three top-10 opponents consecutively in Oregon, UCLA and Arizona, with two of those games coming on the road.

Now, after losses to the Ducks and Bruins, here we are. The momentum from USC’s unbeaten run and its first game against UCLA appears all but spent, and a Trojan team that seemed set to peak in March now looks in danger of limping into the postseason. There are only four games left before USC heads for Las Vegas to take on the rest of the Pac-12, and little time remains to impress heading into tournament season.

It’s unlikely that head coach Andy Enfield’s squad will enjoy a reversal of fortune against No. 4 Arizona tonight, with the Wildcats owning one of the most formidable home-court advantages in college basketball (they are undefeated at the McKale Center this season and have lost just one home game in the last four years). Freshman phenom Lauri Markkanen dominated at the Galen Center when USC fell to Arizona in January, and the Trojans will now also have to contain dynamic guard Allonzo Trier, who was suspended during the first game.

Enfield may look to the Bay Area for inspiration, as Stanford and Cal both played the Wildcats close in Tucson a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, neither the Cardinal nor the Bears exposed any sort of blueprint to topping Arizona. Both deployed zone defenses, which the Wildcats struggled against this season, but that hasn’t been enough to win at the McKale Center. Arizona even overcame single-digit scoring from Markkanen en route to beating Stanford and Cal — and Trier only put up three points against the Bears. The Wildcats still came away with a pair of wins.

Maybe we need to be pessimistic about USC’s prospects tonight — but surely the rebound will come when the Trojans take on middling Arizona State on Sunday, right? It may not be so simple: The Sun Devils made USC sweat when they came to Los Angeles, pulling to within one possession by the end of the game, and they will be even tougher customers at the Wells Fargo Arena where they are 8-5 on the season (13-15 overall). It is not at all out of the question that Enfield and company will return to campus trying to break out of a four-game losing streak.

Given their recent form, the Trojans have likely crushed any fan’s pipe dream of a national championship (unless they pull off a crazy upset against Arizona): The team simply doesn’t seem capable of hitting its top gear outside of the Galen Center. But in the right conditions — namely being at home — USC has shown the ability keep pace with any national titan, and that can’t be dismissed. The program continues to take massive strides with Enfield, and establishing the Galen Center as a fortress is huge for its long-term future and identity. After all, can you name one championship contender that isn’t nearly unbeatable on its home court? The Trojans made progress away from Los Angeles this year, too, notching the first road sweep in Enfield’s USC career in Washington earlier this month.

Enfield has also proven his ability to develop players: Redshirt sophomore guard Shaqquan Aaron has blossomed in his first eligible season since transferring from Louisville, and sophomore forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright have become more imposing threats on both ends of the court during their second year at Troy. Freshman guard De’Anthony Melton has seized a significant role after his early-season impact; junior guard Jordan McLaughlin remains the team’s heart and soul. And all of these players will return to USC next fall, ready to take another step forward.

Yes, we have endured a frustrating penultimate week of the regular season, and this year will probably end in disappointment for Trojan fans. But it’s a minor miracle that we even have a team with high expectations. When Enfield took over in 2013, USC couldn’t buy a conference win, let alone one on the road. Now we have a nationally relevant program that has ambitions to progress in the NCAA Tournament.

When the Trojans take the court tonight, we might see a bloodbath as Trier and Markkanen slice the USC zone to ribbons. But even if that happens, we can watch with a strange sense of optimism. Because come this time next year, Markkanen will be in the NBA — and Trier could be gone with him. Over in Westwood, the Bruins will have to deal with the departures of Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.

For USC, though? McLaughlin, Metu, Boatwright, Aaron, Melton and company will likely all remain Trojans in a depleted Pac-12. Maybe that is when the championship window will finally swing open. It took Theo Epstein five years to shepherd the Chicago Cubs to the Promised Land. Hopefully Enfield’s fifth season at USC will yield similar results.

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