After spending several weeks in the No. 2 slot of the conference, the men’s basketball team is looking to bounce back from a losing skid at home with a pair of road games in the Bay Area.
The Trojans will take on Stanford and Cal, facing off against two of the lowest-ranked teams in the Pac-12 with the hope of maintaining the edge of a winning conference record. The team has already faced and beaten both teams this season, but it will have to repeat that feat on the road to continue fighting for a spot in an extremely balanced Pac-12 conference.
The Trojans will start out in Palo Alto on Wednesday against Stanford, a team which holds a 5-6 record in conference play. When the teams met earlier this season, the Trojans cruised to a 77-66 win, with forwards junior Nick Rakocevic and senior Bennie Boatwright combining for 45 points. The Cardinal have gone 5-4 since the loss, most recently suffering a 23-point defeat to Oregon.
Next, the team will face Cal, which has yet to win a Pac-12 game. The Trojans beat Cal when it visited the Galen Center earlier this year, but the 9-point victory wasn’t especially flashy for the Trojans, who leaned heavily on Rakocevic to sneak out the win. On the road, the Trojans will need an early lead to put away the Bears, who are desperate to notch a win in the second half of the season.
With a record of 1-4 over the past two weeks, the Trojans fell to the middle of the conference rankings after the weekend’s games. USC struggled at Galen Center over the weekend, falling to both Utah and Colorado by less than 10 points. In post-game interviews, Enfield seemed unfazed by the pair of losses.
“It was a typical Pac-12 game,” Enfield said after the Colorado game. “It’s usually close at halftime. It was a matter of defending and executing. We didn’t play a bad game, but they had a lot of layups.”
His attitude was more severe after the first loss to Utah, which Enfield described as the team’s “worst effort in a long time.” Against Utah, the Trojans only tallied 12 assists, their worst statistic of the season. Both Enfield and the team recognize the necessity for change, especially late in the game, to continue clinching games that stay close into the final minutes.
One major change over recent weeks has been the return of freshman Kevin Porter Jr., who was sidelined with injuries and a suspension throughout the season. When he had time on the court, Porter demonstrated himself a potent shooter, dropping 14 points in his post-suspension debut against Arizona. Still nursing a thigh bruise from several weeks ago, the freshman is working to get back on his feet, but his continued presence offers another outlet for the team to expand its depth in close games, Enfield and Porter said.
“Our team is very contagious both ways,” Enfield said. “When we’re sharing the basketball, making the extra pass or driving or posting up, everybody starts to do it. When we start taking bad shots, it seems like everybody starts taking bad shots or contested or rushed shots.”
With only seven games left in the regular season, the Trojans have officially entered crunch time. The team is ranked No. 5 in the conference, but three teams are tied for second, meaning that a winning streak to close the season could leave the team well-poised to take a top spot in the Pac-12. In a mediocre season with nothing but parity, the Pac-12 title isn’t out of reach for USC — but the path to it will be paved on the road.