Road to March Madness: For now, men’s basketball is in a good spot going into March
The last month of Trojan basketball has been one for the books. After starting the year off on a cold streak, USC fought back with a series of Pac-12 victories against Colorado, Utah and Arizona State.
In their first true test of the season, the Trojans fell to Arizona 63-72. Critics of Head Coach Andy Enfield and Co. felt vindicated by this loss, arguing that USC has an inflated record and cannot hold their own against talented teams.
Those that were in McKale Memorial Center that night know that is not the case.
USC kept the game within 5 for almost the entire game against a very talented Arizona team, even taking a steady lead at some points.
However, a loss is a loss, and the reason the Trojans were defeated at Arizona has been a constant theme this season: inconsistent offense.
One week, junior guard Boogie Ellis was scoring 2 points against Arizona State; the next week, senior guard Drew Peterson was scoring 5 against Arizona. Unreliable offense has plagued the Trojans all season, especially at the free-throw line, and USC has rarely had all of their stars operating in tandem.
To defeat a team like UCLA, USC had to come out of the locker room with a more cohesive offensive approach, and boy did they.
Even with junior forward Isaiah Mobley out, the USC offense had a field day. Peterson exited his slump in style, scoring 27 points in a double-double effort. Peterson and redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin cleaned the glass all night, combining for 18 defensive rebounds, 11 and 7 respectively.
The Trojans were also an impossible matchup around the arc, shooting 44.4% from three. As UCLA began to close out on shooters faster in the second half, USC guards were able to penetrate a usually formidable Bruin defense and kick it out to open shooters.
In hindsight, this win was foreseeable.
UCLA was coming off of rough losses against Arizona and Arizona State and has also struggled in a few key areas USC excels in. The Bruins’ 3-point shooting is very mediocre, which is helpful for a USC team that has a hard time defending beyond the arc.
USC is also one of the taller teams in the NCAA, and UCLA does not have comparable length on their roster. Conversely, Arizona was able to counter this length by getting the ball to their star bigs like 6-foot-11 sophomore forward Azuolas Tubelis and 7-foot junior center Oumar Ballo.
After defeating UCLA, USC is in prime position to earn a No. 4 or No. 5 seed on Selection Sunday depending on how they fare in rematches against Arizona and UCLA next month.
A rank of this degree would do wonders to help them repeat or even outshine their March Madness performance last season.
Despite the seeding, with Arizona, USC and UCLA trading shots, the Pac-12 will undoubtedly have its presence felt in March.
USC will have to continue to find answers on offense in unexpected places if they want to make a deep run in the postseason. The Trojans defeated UCLA, while missing their best big in Mobley and getting 0 points from Ellis, their main ball handler. If a win in that scenario is possible, anything is possible for USC in March.
Across the NCAA, things have been heating up in the last week.
Texas has emerged as a possible Elite Eight candidate after beating Kansas in a thriller last week. Senior forward Timmy Allen hit a clutch shot to give the Longhorns the lead in the final minute.
After defeating USC, Oregon had won 7 of 8 games and were on the right side of the bubble. Now, after a demoralizing loss to UC Berkeley, their chances of being the fourth Pac-12 team in the NCAA tournament are significantly diminished.
The Wyoming Cowboys, a team that has become a fan favorite this season, has made it over the hump and will likely appear in the postseason for the first time since 2015.
After being ranked No. 6 in the nation in the preseason, Michigan has been a massive disappointment this season. The Wolverines could find themselves at home in March after advancing to the Elite Eight in 2021 even after an impressive blowout of No. 5 Purdue last Thursday.
Auburn was dethroned as the top seed in the AP poll after losing to Arkansas. Gonzaga returned to the top spot and is well positioned for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament along with Auburn.
Besides Auburn and Gonzaga, it’s anyone’s guess who will earn top seeds. It is shaping up to be a very unpredictable March Madness, and if the cards fall right, USC could find itself back in the Elite Eight.
Trojan fans will have to endure a quiet couple of weeks facing lesser Pac-12 opponents until their rematch against the Wildcats on Mar. 1.
Ethan Horowitz is a sophomore writing about USC men’s basketball’s path towards the NCAA Tournament. His column “Road to March Madness,” runs every other Wednesday.