The Great Debate: It’s time to get excited about men’s basketball

Freshman guard Tre White is one of the many key pieces USC hopes to bring back next season. (Cassandra Elena Yra | Daily Trojan)

As I sat in T-Mobile Arena watching USC’s opening game in the Pac-12 tournament against Arizona State, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I knew that the Trojans were nowhere near the likes of Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12, but to lose to a team that you had beaten just five days earlier and not even really put up a fight in the game was very telling. 

It ended in a 5-point loss, but if you watched the game you saw that it was never really close. USC never looked like they wanted to win the game and were down by double-digits throughout.

And then on Friday, I watched a similar script unfold in their opening round game against Michigan State, and just like that their season was over. This was a season for men’s basketball that was filled with ups and downs. From an opening day double-digit loss to mid-major Florida Gulf Coast to getting a decisive statement home win against top-ranked UCLA, this season for the Trojans had it all. But while it ended with more negatives than positives, the only thing on my mind is next year and how I can’t wait for it to begin.

Obviously, the second a team you care about has their season ended you immediately want to look to next year and gain any ounce of renewed hope. But this time it’s going to be different for USC men’s basketball. This time there’s a reason to get excited. There’s a reason to raise expectations. There’s a reason to start counting down the days until the 2023-24 college basketball season is underway. 

Now I’m not going to make some bold prediction here stating that USC will go on and win the next three straight NCAA championships. As shown in previous editions of this column, some of my predictions have certainly aged like milk.

Of course, as soon as I state that USC women’s basketball is the real deal and will make a big run, they proceed to lose in the first round of both their conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. But then again, I am also currently in first place in The Daily Trojan bracket challenge and in the 99.6 percentile of all brackets. 

When it comes to making predictions, I tend to have a mixed bag. So instead of making that crazy prediction, I’m just going to present you with some facts, and then you can decide for yourself how high to make your expectations for the team.

It would be hard to talk about next season for USC men’s basketball without first stating the obvious: USC has the No. 1 recruit in the entire country coming here next year. Isaiah Collier will be a Trojan household name if he isn’t already. The five-star is USC’s first-ever No. 1 recruit in the modern recruiting era and just won national high school player of the year. If you thought Boogie Ellis manning the point for the Trojans was fun to watch, just wait until Collier shows up.

Looking back, five of the last six No. 1 ranked recruits, not including 2020, have all led their teams to the Sweet Sixteen or further in March Madness. And all of them have led them to at least one win in the tournament. These recruits are ranked high and regarded as such for a reason.

And that might not be all for next year’s recruiting class. The No. 33 ranked recruit according to 24/7 sports is still undecided and has narrowed down USC as one of his final three schools. And who is the No. 33 ranked recruit you might ask? Oh, just the son of arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time. Bronny James could be the X factor for the Trojans next year.

I’ve heard friends refer to him as “a 3-star recruit with a 5-star name,” and in all honesty that could be true. I haven’t seen much of his game except for a few highlights on Instagram. But as they say, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, and I’m sure a backcourt tandem of James and Collier would stack up with the best in the country.

But let’s not forget about all the talent USC has on its current roster for next season. The Trojans had nine total underclassmen on the roster this season, and many of them gained valuable experience. USC has a good strong core heading into next season with sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters, freshman forward Tre White, sophomore guard Kobe Johnson and freshman forward Vincent Iwuchukwu.

This core performed well in their elevated roles this season and was recognized by that in raking in a bunch of Pac-12 awards. Dixon-Waters won Pac-12 sixth player of the year, Johnson was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team and White was named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team. And with Iwuchukwu, crossing my fingers, being healthy for a full season, this core can reach heights this program hasn’t seen in a while.

This season may have ended on a sour note and the era of Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson has drawn to a close, but this was the perfect transition for those next up at USC. Will USC men’s basketball win its first-ever NCAA championship next season? It’s honestly too early to tell. But what I will say is that next year’s team will be different from years past, and will give everyone boasting cardinal and gold something to get excited about.

Stefano Fendrich is a sophomore writing about his opinions on some of sport’s biggest debates in his column, “The Great Debate,” which runs every other Tuesday. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan.