January 9, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Nick Rakocevic is the key to a defensive renaissance. The time for waiting for Melton is running out. (Galen Central)
LOS ANGELES – After Stanford’s Daejon Davis connected on a 50-foot bomb to top USC last Sunday night, Jordan McLaughlin – oddly, enough – couldn’t stop grinning.
Both right after the shot, and right outside the visitor’s locker room, he grinned dismissively, as if the miracle heave was so anomalous that it invalidates the whole game.
“We knew they were dangerous,” he said, relaying the sportsmanlike and proper message, “but we just didn’t limit them enough.”
The senior point guard has the experience to know that the Trojans can still get to the NCAA tournament, despite two bad losses and a dearth of quality wins.
With some teams over his career sneaking into the dance and making mini-runs, Andy Enfield has to know the path is there, too, and just like last year, barely making it is enough to make noise.
Before we walk this path, let’s look inside the USC resume to see what they are bringing to what is now an arduous journey to March Madness.
When the Trojans were one of the last at-large teams to make it last year, they ranked No. 41.
This year, USC’s only noteworthy win was over Middle Tennessee State in the Diamond Head Classic. While the Aggies rank in the top-40, a sole triumph over MTSU doesn’t exactly leap off the page.
Compared to last year, solid wins over Texas A&M and BYU sprinkled a resume that sparkled with the silver bullet that was No. 13 Southern Methodist.
Lastly, the only bad loss in 2016-2017 was late in the year to Arizona State, who finished 15-18 in coach Bobby Hurley’s second year. This year, Princeton and Stanford supplied two early black eyes to the Trojan’s face.
With the doom and gloom out of the way, here’s how USC makes the tournament, giving themselves a chance to make the deep run they envisioned for themselves last summer.
HOLD SERVE AT HOME
Yes, Pete Thamel, Galen Center is not the most intimidating place to play on the same night that the whole fan base is watching the Cotton Bowl (and the students are passed out at their hometown pubs).
However, Enfield has only lost at home to the best in the conference the last two years. A win over Arizona and two over UCLA at Galen bolstered the last two tournament resumes.
Princeton and Washington pierced the notion of this year’s home-court advantage, but USC has opportunities to right the ship.
Neither of the elite Arizona programs visit downtown Los Angeles this year, but bubble teams Utah and UCLA do.
Those teams rank between 10 spots of each other on RPI, which means if USC protects their own court, they knock two competitors out of a coveted at-large bid.
The rest of the home slate is manageable – a word I regrettably typed going into last week’s Bay Area swing – as everyone else ranks outside the top-100. This includes the recently annoying Colorado Buffaloes and Stanford Cardinal.
Lose at home to a bottom-dweller, and the brick beneath the road to the tournament crumbles beneath USC’s feet.
PICK OFF TWO ROAD GAMES BETWEEN TOP TEAMS
Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA are the only potential wins that would grab the committee’s attention.
Last year, USC could afford to whiff on the road, as they grabbed pelts off SMU and UCLA at home. This year, it’s different.
RPI ranks Arizona State and Arizona at No. 9 and No. 23, respectively. With both recently losing to Colorado, the Trojans early February drive to the desert needs to yield at last one win.
In addition, USC needs to continue having the upper-hand on UCLA, as the Men of Troy have won four of the last six against their crosstown rivals.
The MTSU win sandwiched between the prestige names of Arizona and UCLA may be enough.
UP NICK RAKOCEVIC’s MINUTES
Nick Rakocevic entered the Stanford game after the first media timeout with the Trojans trailing 11-4.
While he took some breathers in between, he finished out the first half with USC leading 47-36.
Out again for the first four minutes of the second half, Stanford went on another nine to two run. Once he entered again, USC built back the lead to 15 by the 10:40 mark.
While he sat on the bench with four fouls, Stanford stormed back to steal the win in Palo Alto.
Simply put, the Trojans best chance to become a competent defensive team this year is through Rakocevic (we’ll talk about De’Anthony Melton in a bit). He was the only one able to contain Reid Travis, who beat up USC inside for 29 points on Sunday.
He also neutralized Cal forward Marcus Lee, a former Kentucky standout, earlier in the week.
While Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright go for the highlight blocks and steals, leading to more highlight dunks, Rakocevic is the stable core the interior defense needs.
Right now, opponents are attacking the No. 205 2-point defense in the country per Kenpom, and hitting a healthy 50 percent of their shots. Outside of the miraculous shot at the end, Stanford epitomized how USC can get bullied or miss rotations without Rakocevic’s presence.
He’s not half bad on offense, too, scoring 19 and 17 in consecutive games.
DO THEY NEED MELTON?
To make the tournament, no.
To make a Final Four run, yes.
The addition of Derryck Thornton after the Washington collapse created positive ripple effects for the backcourt.
While De’Anthony Melton led the conference in steals last year, a different contributor has complemented his presence the last few outings.
Jordan McLaughlin forced four steals against Stanford, and 6-foot-7 Jordan Usher used his length to force four more against Cal. He added three more against Washington State to complement Elijah Stewart’s other three.
Basically, the defense can be just good enough if Rakocevic gets more time and the guards continue their elevated play.
However, Melton is a fantastic talent that scored 8.3 points a game as a freshman. He’s the best finisher out of the guards, and catalyzed the mini-run USC had in the tournament last year.
Enfield intimated after the Washington game that Melton is probably his best player. One can’t help but think Melton would’ve been enough to beat Princeton, Washington, Stanford and heck, even top-10 Oklahoma.
He’s necessary to shut down the elite scorers you see in March. The rest of the backcourt can carry the load to get them there.
USC fans shouldn’t expect De’Anthony Melton back soon, so the future is with a roster that has the pieces to fit into their March dancing shoes.
The opportunities are there against name teams, and players like Rakocevic are starting to demand more playing time to shore up the No. 132 total defense in the nation.
Andy Enfield has turned it around before. In 2015-2016, the team stole wins over Arizona and UCLA to get into the first round. At Florida-Gulf Coast, he racked off the necessary wins in the Atlantic Sun tournament to fuel their 2013 Cinderella run.
So while his face seemed determined after the Stanford loss…
It’s understandable why Jordan McLaughlin was smiling.