Jung Money: USC could end up playing in March

first_imgOllie Jung | Daily TrojanSince I finished my term as sports editor of the Daily Trojan in December, I’ve largely taken a break from watching the Trojans — following 20 programs over the course of the year can lead to some burnout. So even after getting an alert for USC’s 69-64 victory over Stanford on Wednesday night, I assumed that the men’s basketball program remained in a tailspin.Last I checked, USC had lost a class-headlining commitment from Taeshon Cherry and suspended sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton for the season in connection with the Tony Bland scandal. The FBI investigation cast a massive shadow over the start of the season, and head coach Andy Enfield’s squad plummeted from its No. 10 preseason ranking. A campaign that began with arguably the highest hopes in program history looked like it had gone down the tubes before the start of conference play.That’s why I did a double take on Thursday, when I saw the Trojans sat at second place the Pac-12 standings. I suppose it was easy to dismiss their chances during a 2-4 skid after Thanksgiving — including a 103-93 loss to Princeton at the Galen Center — especially when compared to USC’s perfect, 14-0 non-conference mark last season. But the Trojans have rebounded, racing out to a 7-2 start in Pac-12 play to put them at the conference summit alongside No. 11 Arizona (7-1). They earned consecutive wins at Oregon and Oregon State for the first time in the Enfield era last week. The team is riding a five-game winning streak, and after a month-long absence, it is back in the NCAA tournament in ESPN’s Bracketology projections. The usual suspects have spearheaded the Trojans’ resurgence. Junior forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright lead the way in scoring and rebounding, averaging 16.4 and 15.1 points per game, respectively, and around seven rebounds per game each.Meanwhile, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin remains USC’s heartbeat, accounting for close to half of the squad’s assists this season while also leading the roster in steals. His clutch free-throw shooting steered the Trojans to victory at Oregon last week. As the team has rounded into form, it has also displayed its depth. Senior guard Elijah Stewart and freshman guard Jordan Usher joined forces from beyond the arc to rally the team past Oregon State two days after the win in Eugene, and sophomore guard Jonah Mathews came off the bench to pour in 18 points against Stanford on Wednesday. Redshirt junior guard Shaqquan Aaron and sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic — last season’s breakout stars — are still key contributors off the bench, and redshirt sophomore guard Derryck Thornton has been logging important minutes in his first season of eligibility since transferring from Duke in 2016. If this strong play continues, USC can legitimately aim to improve on last year’s round-of-32 performance at March Madness this spring, despite all the nervous buzz that has swirled around the program since September. As the Trojans re-enter the national conversation, however, they must avoid complacency. The team deserves praise for its mental fortitude during a distraction-filled season, but it now prepares for the toughest stretch in its schedule.USC hosts Pac-12 cellar dweller Cal this weekend. After that, though, the Trojans have a date with UCLA in Westwood followed by a road trip to face No. 21 Arizona State and Arizona back-to-back. The two Oregon schools visit Los Angeles once USC gets back from Arizona, then the team wraps up the season at Colorado, at Utah and, finally, versus UCLA at the Galen Center. It would only take three wins from the remaining nine games for the Trojans to match last season’s 10-8 record in the Pac-12. But even that is no guarantee with 10 of 12 teams in the conference sitting above .500 and boasting strong records at home. Road games in the Pac-12 have been a sore spot for Enfield since the head coach arrived in 2013, and five of them wait to wrap up the regular season. Fortunately, only USC’s clashes against the Bears and Utes are scheduled for the Pac-12 Network — the rest will be on national television. This means Enfield’s team has the chance to turn heads around the country as they take on their strongest opponents of the season in the fight for first place.The Trojans’ season hangs on this final run of games. They certainly aren’t irrelevant by any stretch — but they also haven’t proved anything just yet.Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runslast_img