COLUMN: USC has improved but hasn’t yet arrived

It’s funny how sports can sometimes work as a metaphor for life — in that everything seems to balance out. For the USC men’s basketball team, it’s the fact that they are neither as good as their 14-0 start nor as bad as their recent losses against three top-ranked teams followed by a debacle at Arizona State.

If those stretches of games were on polar ends of the spectrum, then Wednesday night’s 87-64 home shellacking of Washington State brought it all back down to earth. The Trojans, a team with a fair amount of talent and home-court advantage, played an opponent they should beat  — and they took care of business.

USC won’t sport a national championship contender anytime soon, but convincing wins such as this one indicate a leap out of the
bottom-dweller status the Trojans were relegated to a few years ago and a sign of what head coach Andy Enfield has accomplished thus far. This is where the team is at right now: in the middle of the pack of a conference that has teams placed all over the spectrum — college basketball purgatory, if you will.

Whether by design or just the way it worked out, Enfield’s slow-but-sure progression of the program could test the patience of a fan base that needs a lot more incentive than it’s getting now to fill the Galen Center seats on a regular basis. And following up on its most impressive season in years by winning just one more conference game (if they take care of Washington on Saturday) is by no means a negative, but it is an indication that the program has some work to do before it can compete nationally.

Nevertheless, as the Trojans look to lock up a spot in March Madness with a win over Washington and a decent showing in the Pac-12 Tournament next week, they’ll try to recapture the magic from their 14-0 start and shake off whatever demons may remain from the brutal stretch of four straight losses.

The 14-0 start — USC’s best since 1971 – is one that should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the lack of competitive opponents save for SMU and perhaps Texas A&M and BYU. It’s why the Trojans were able to remain on the select list of undefeated teams in the NCAA until the day before New Year’s Eve, and it’s why they floated around the AP Top 25 poll for a few weeks.

It’s Pac-12 play that has given us a real chance to watch how this program is developing, and it’s clear this team is not quite there yet. Their lone “unexpected” conference win came against UCLA on Jan. 25 at the Galen Center, a game that showed flashes of just how good USC can be.

Problem is, they have to do more than just beat UCLA. They have to take down other top-tier team such as Oregon and Arizona, both of whom beat USC twice this season. They can’t afford to drop winnable games such as Jan. 8 against Cal and last Sunday against ASU, games in which they had a late lead but wound up losing by one in each case. And even on the heels of their statement win over the Bruins in January, it was a considerable letdown for the Trojans to be run off the court in Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 18, giving up 102 points to UCLA in a 32-point beatdown.

That is what has made this season a tad frustrating; just when you think they have something special brewing by blowing through non-conference play and overcoming a 3-4 start in Pac-12 action by reeling off five straight wins, they hit a roadblock against three of the top teams in the country and then falter incredulously against ASU.

It’s the basketball version of the law of averages. And, like last season, they’ll head into Selection Sunday with a bit of uncertainty as to whether they’ll be going dancing later this month — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Trojans as one of the last four teams in, needing to win a play-in game just to make the Round of 64. A quick and sound win over the lowly Huskies on Saturday should improve their chances. So will a strong showing in the Pac-12 Tournament next week, though if they don’t get far, they only have themselves to blame for throwing away the game against ASU that cost them a better seeding.

Roughly a year ago — as the team was in the midst of a season exceeding expectations — I interviewed Enfield for a feature, where he stressed to me not to mention that the team had “arrived” or “accomplished something” despite how well things were going. A year later, it’s safe to say there’s still work to be done before this team can sit at the same table with the big shots.    

Eric He is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associate managing editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs on Fridays.