Berg is the Word: USC Basketball has something that Football doesn’t — juice

“The juice” is a term that has become popular among the members of the USC football team in recent years, and no, it’s not a reference to the nickname of a certain former Trojan running back who got into some trouble a while back. 

One definition of the phrase on Urban Dictionary is “A type of energy emitted from those of great power and potential.” It’s also frequently used to describe someone or something who inspires that type of energy in those around them.

It’s ironic that “the juice” has caught on with the football team just as the University’s premier program may be getting bypassed in both performance and popularity.

During the same year that USC football failed to draw a five-star prospect and ranks a dismal 10th in the Pac-12 in recruiting according to 247Sports, USC basketball earned a commitment from the No. 1 recruit in the country — Evan Mobley — and is in the race for the conference title. But the difference in positivity for the two programs is about more than just numbers; it comes down to the basketball team’s edge in the ineffable quality that the football team has misguidedly co-opted.

The Trojans’ last two contests at Galen Center have provided a glimpse into just how fun — and good — this team could be. The squad’s veterans stepped up in an 88-56 demolition of Cal Thursday as senior and redshirt senior guards Jonah Mathews and Daniel Utomi combined for 36 points on 7-for-11 shooting from downtown. 

Two days later, the team’s talented youngsters took the reigns. Freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu dropped 22 points, and sophomore guard Elijah Weaver hit a game-tying 3-pointer to tie Stanford in the final seconds before finishing an and-one layup in overtime to secure a win that featured a 21-point second-half comeback.

USC hit many encouraging benchmarks just in this two-game stretch. It showed it can blow out inferior teams without letting them hang around. By handing Stanford its first conference loss, the Trojans proved they can hang with good teams and moved into a tie with the Cardinal for first place in the conference. 

But most importantly, USC proved it could dig deep and capture the devotion of its fanbase by completing that big comeback Saturday.

Galen got progressively louder as the second half wore on, becoming almost deafening when Weaver sunk the three to tie the game with under 10 seconds left. When Weaver missed the go-ahead free throw, it didn’t deflate the crowd. Instead, the fans brought the same raucousness they had demonstrated all game long to overtime. It was a capstone moment for the team, and the fan reaction is a big reason why.

Before you dismiss the importance of positive energy around a team, consider the football program. As USC fell to depressing lows in 2018 and crawled up to mediocrity in 2019, the entire fanbase turned sour. I have my frustrations about how fickle the “Trojan Faithful” can be, but the program didn’t do much to garner any favor when it got blown out by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl before deciding that a head coach with a 13-12 record the last two seasons had done enough to keep his job.

Allowing 49 points to a plodding Iowa team that averaged 20 points per game against Power 5 opponents to that point was a humiliating cherry on top of the depression sundae that has been the last two years at University Park. USC fans are fed up, as evidenced by their tireless efforts to fill athletic director Mike Bohn and President Carol Folt’s Twitter replies with as much hate as possible. Attendance is already down at the Coliseum, and more and more fans are threatening to sell their season tickets.

That stuff affects the players. Trust me, they know their fanbase isn’t 100% behind them; how could they not with reporters asking about the angst around the team after every practice and game? 

It’s hard to play your best with that knowledge. I have no doubt that it’s part of the reason the team hasn’t played well the last 20 games or so, and it’s definitely a huge factor in USC missing out on top recruits. Meanwhile, USC basketball had the seventh-ranked recruiting class in 2019, the best in the history of the program.

The basketball team showcased an ability to captivate its supporters Saturday in a way the football team hasn’t since the sweet, sweet days of Sam Darnold. As the Trojans have worked their way to a 15-3 record this season, the jokes that USC is now a basketball school have increased at a healthy rate, but that really isn’t too far from being a possibility.

If the Trojans can make it into the NCAA Tournament, make a solid run and then carry that momentum into next season with Mobley arriving to elevate the program, the football team will need to make marked improvements to maintain its status as the face of the University.

There’s still a long way to go for USC basketball. Apart from Stanford, the Trojans beat three bad opponents in the Pac-12 and got boat raced at Washington in their only other matchup against a quality team. Head coach Andy Enfield has proven that his teams can fail in spite of strong talent, even in a mediocre Pac-12. The conference also has stronger teams this season, like No. 23 Colorado, No. 22 Arizona and No. 12 Oregon, whom the Trojans face in Eugene Thursday.

That matchup with the Ducks could easily end in a blowout loss that almost instantly makes this column outdated, but the Trojans have the capability of hanging with the conference’s best team. 

The energy the players had following the victory over Stanford is representative of a team that has a little extra oomph. Don’t be shocked if USC brings “the juice” to Oregon tomorrow.

Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also a features editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” will run every other Monday.