Anthony on LA: USC and UCLA’s performances in March Madness highlight a city booming with basketball

Cities across the country want to be the established sports capital of the United States.

For God knows what reason, Indianapolis was considered the “sports capital” for a period of time. Then, of course, Boston had a say too, winning 12 championships across four major professional sports since 2000.  

Now, the question over who the title belongs to shouldn’t be a debate: Los Angeles is the sports capital of the country, and it’s not even close.

Both the Lakers and the Dodgers winning the title last year makes a strong case for the city already, but the performances of USC and UCLA men’s basketball in March Madness this year have brought about a special buzz.

It’s a brand of basketball that made Bill Walton even prouder than usual to hail the Pac-12 the “Conference of Champions.” 

Whether I like it or not, UCLA basketball’s run in March Madness is too impressive and improbable for me not to discuss it. I’ll start with the Bruins just to get it out of the way since they truly do deserve credit.

UCLA had a tough basketball season. High expectations and even a national ranking in the middle of the season came crashing down after a poor end to the regular season.

The Bruins were in prime position to win the Pac-12 before dropping key games to Oregon and Colorado on the road and then ultimately losing to USC because of a buzzer-beater from redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy. Then, they lost the first game in the Pac-12 tournament to add insult to injury.

Things were looking bleak for the boys in Westwood. They were forced to win a play-in game during the first four matchups against Michigan State just to get into March Madness and stay alive. 

Not only did the Bruins win the game in overtime, they proceeded to take down BYU, Abilene Christian, second-seeded Alabama and first-seeded Michigan to reach their first Final Four since 2008

By making the Final Four, they also became the first team out of the first four play-in games to do so since Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011.

In a normal year of college basketball, UCLA making an unlikely run to the Final Four is enough to steal all the glitter in Tinseltown. 

Nevertheless, USC basketball was starving for some hype themselves.

I’ve covered this team since the very beginning, extremely eager to see what could possibly be the outcome of the season. I told friends and colleagues that this team was special and a deep March Madness run could be possible.

But I never could have expected the season to play out like this.

From the two-week coronavirus pause to the nearly two months of dominant Pac-12 conference play, the entire year has been remarkable. It’s no debate at this point that this is one of — if not the — best basketball teams USC has ever put together.

As a fan, I’ll miss their camaraderie on and off the court, their grinding defensive effort and unbelievable talent ranging from players like 7-foot freshman forward Evan Mobley to 5-foot-7 junior guard Amar Ross.

Not to mention how fun it was to watch the Mobley brothers take over games and watch the immense contributions from transfers like redshirt senior guard Isaiah White, senior forward Chevez Goodwin and junior guard Drew Peterson

Even though there were some bumps in the road this was not like any other year of basketball. No matter the challenge or the obstacle, the Trojans shocked us and showed up when the stakes were high.

It’s eerily similar to UCLA’s own season.

The Bruins fell early with their top scorer senior guard Chris Smith going out with a torn ACL in January. Then, redshirt junior forward Jalen Hill began sitting out the season due to “personal reasons” in early February, diminishing the height of the Bruins frontcourt.

It would’ve been easy to just pack up and build for next season. But, UCLA and USC moved forward with what they had and made deep postseason runs out of it.

For USC, they battled the analysts who said they’re not for real and just a fluke. Being in the Pac-12 and part of a school known for its football isn’t an ideal situation. But they used it as fuel, shocking the doubters and showing what this basketball program is capable of.

The resilience of both teams resulted in L.A. booming with outstanding basketball all over. In a city with the Clippers, Lakers and Sparks, it’s the student-athletes that have stolen the headlines this month.

With close matchups in recent years between the two schools’ football, basketball and water polo teams, the rivalry is as heated as ever. And with USC beating the Bruins in a dramatic fashion the last two seasons, it might be a better rivalry compared to its football counterpart.

So often the schools are divided by alumni bragging about each school and diminishing the accomplishments of the other; it’s time they realize just how similar the schools really are and how huge of an impact they’ve made together. 

Growing up, it was all about USC football and the stars that came and went. The basketball program was not mentioned often in L.A. — it was almost always UCLA first. As I began my academic career at USC, all I heard about was the potential of the football team. 

I on the other hand was more interested in the Mobley brothers and how the basketball season would play out. And in my first year at USC, there really could not have been a better team to cover and follow as a beat writer and fan. The team quickly became one of my all-time favorites to watch and made my experience as a sports journalist at USC as memorable as possible.

L.A. is simply the city of basketball. It’s just a shame no one could see it come together in person.

Anthony Gharib is a sophomore writing about Los Angeles professional sports. He is also the deputy sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column, “Anthony on LA,” runs every other Wednesday.