March 11, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Every team has a story. For USC this season, it has echoed the speech from the sixth Rocky movie.
“It’s about how hard you get hit,” the almost octogenarian Balboa says, “and keep moving forward.”
Where do you begin with these Trojans?
We all know about De’Anthony Melton. To reiterate, the FBI cleared him of any corruption charges related to the Christian Dawkins and Munish Sood case. Yes, his uncle may or may not have received $2,000 to steer Melton in Dawkins’ direction after college. The FBI investigation showed that Melton had no knowledge of the situation. Despite all of this, USC caved to NCAA pressure and suspended him for the whole year.
Best player, at least defensively, ain’t coming back.
Keep in mind, every other player connected to the Yahoo Sports report on NCAA corruption has been reinstated. The NCAA has so far made massive moves, such as clearing Michigan State’s Miles Bridges name should he pay $40 back for a meal he received. Their vigilance is breathtaking.
Without Melton, Andy Enfield’s preseason top-10 team bombed against Texas A&M and Southern Methodist. No Melton meant no chance to stop Trae Young, either.
The rest of December fared little better. The Trojans could have filmed a Walking Dead spinoff called the Walking Wounded. Two hyped contributors in Derryck Thornton and Jonah Matthews joined potential NBA draft pick Bennie Boatwright on the bench. Jordan McLaughlin visibly suffered while taking all of the minutes, and Nick Rakocevic took time to feel comfortable in place of Boatwright.
A loss to Princeton followed. Next, Washington shot 67 percent from the field. Deajon Davis’ 50-foot heave, another haymaker to the larynx, threatened to submarine the whole season.
How did this team emerge from these depths to finish second in both the regular season and conference tournament?
The cynical answer is the conference, probably sending only three to four teams, wasn’t that good. The real answer is this team’s resolve manifested itself around defense. Enfield, despite the Florida Gulf Coast monikor, was a defensive guru at Florida State. Twice, he manned top units nationally as an assistant under Leonard Hamilton.
Nowhere was this defensive rennassaince more apparent than this weekend in Las Vegas.
The numbers back this up. They left Galen Center against UCLA ranked the No. 102 efficiency defense according to Ken Pomeroy. Fresh off a 1.2 points per possession pasting at the hands of Aaron Holliday, it was another potential gut punch towards an NCAA bid.
They squashed any chance at an Oregon State upset by holding them to 48 points on 29 percent shooting in the quarterfinal. While the defense previously built any good performance on the back of turnovers – No. 1 at forcing them in the conference – they simply used their length to effect shots. Chimezie Metu and Rakocevic harassed Tres Tinkle with discipline and length.
The next night, against a feisty Oregon team led by offensive guru Dana Altman, was even more impressive. They held the No. 4 offense in the conference to 54 points, 16 less than each of the previous two matchups, and 33 percent shooting. They hilariously hoisted six airballs. Oregon couldn’t even eclipse 0.8 points a possession.
The first two games were unequivocally the best the team has looked all year. This is in a year where they swept the Oregon and Mountain teams on the road, unheard of in the Pac-12.
Enfield deployed a mostly 2-3 zone look that still ran shooters off the perimeter. When you have two 6-foot-11 trees inside, and lengthy wings such as Shaqquan Aaron, you can do this. Finally, it seemed the team was en route to reaching their potential.
A battling first half against the Bahamian Titan in Deandre Ayton seemed to verify this. Up three with a half to go, and no fouls for a burgeoning Rakocevic, it seemed program foundations such as Metu, McLaughlin and Stewart might get finally get national recognition for their efforts.
20 minutes away from a trophy. In a year where writers like Pete Thamel discarded them so quickly. It would have been sweet redemption.
You know the rest. Ayton went Super Saiyan, and Rawle Alkins did his best Patrick Chewing impersonation.
While the story isn’t over, no one thinks this team will make that magical run in March. They will certainly (UPDATE: Ugh…) make the tournament, as 79 of 84 teams on Bracket Matrix have them anywhere between a nine and an 11-seed. Unless something crazy happens, this season will continue for at least one more night.
This weekend reminded loyal Trojan fans of why they started caring so much about THIS team. Jordan McLaughlin smiling. Chimezie Metu making so many alley-oops that it got boring after a while. Enfield’s impeccable pocket squares. Elijah Stewart always crediting good performances to his teammates screaming at him.
Every team has a story. Every team provides memories. This one has another weekend ahead them to provide even more.
Update: Just not in the tournament they expected.