When the USC men's basketball team (24-9) finally arrived to its hotel around 12:30 a.m. in Dayton, Ohio after a five-hour flight delay, bagpipes were blaring and plastic clappers were clacking. The transition from 87-degree sunny Los Angeles to the arrival in 26-degree, snow covered Dayton was far from easy, but then again, neither was USC's climb back to two-straight NCAA tournament appearances.
The last time USC officially had back-to-back showings in the Big Dance was 2001-'02 (a string of three-straight during the '07-'09 seasons no longer counts as the 2008 appearance was vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
USC finished seven of those past 14 seasons under .500, dipping as low as 6-26 in 2012. But as Andy Enfield took over the reins as head coach in 2014, USC quickly steered in a different direction.
The upward climb was as gradual as a flight up Machu Picchu. The first year saw growth as minimal as the first step of an expedition—a one win increase—but as the run-and-gun system became more ingrained and the players fit for the style came in, the momentum up the hill soared.
USC quickly turned a 12-20 record into 21-13 within a year, made its way from PAC-12 bottom-dweller to NCAA tourney contender and found a home in the first round as an eight seed. Despite a one-point buzzer-beating loss to Providence, the future looked bright and the keys were in place.
“We completely turned around the program,” junior guard Elijah Stewart said while hunched over sitting in front of his locker. “It means everything. That’s what I came to USC to do, I wanted to change the culture of basketball here and I feel like we accomplished that, being here back-to-back years.”
One year later, USC finds itself back in similar territory—almost too similar—with yet another NCAA Tournament matchup with Providence as part of the First Four play-in games, yet this time the climb has the team nearing the pinnacle of USC's historic mountain.
"I thought it was pretty crazy when I found out we get to play them again," said sophomore forward Chimezie Metu. "I guess it's just a message that things don't happen on accident."
With a win Wednesday over the Friars, the Trojans would match a program-best 25 wins (2007) with a more than reasonable chance to break the mark in a round of 64 meeting with SMU, who USC defeated 78-73 in November.
USC's 23 regular season wins marks the most in 25 years, a year the Trojans made the tournament as a two seed only to be knocked out in the second round.
But instead of being a national favorite to make a big run like 1992, USC now finds itself as the underdog, a misunderstood team being overlooked from the west coast with a chance to prove itself.
“A lot of people don’t feel like we should be here, but we do. We know we should be in and we just have to come out and prove that every night we get a chance to play,” Metu said. “At this point in the season, the better team doesn’t always win. It takes one game to get hot for a mid-major or low-major school… The team that comes in ready to play, focused is the team that walks away with the victory.”
The better team doesn't always win.
Of USC's nine losses, six came against UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, all teams that are seeded three or better in the Tournament. Despite only coming away with one win in the seven games against the top three teams in the PAC-12, USC was able to come away with the experience to promote future success.
"I feel like going up against [Arizona and Oregon] two times and UCLA three times, we know we're able to compete with a high caliber team," said junior point guard Jordan McLaughlin.
USC squeaked into the First Four behind an RPI of 41 and strength of schedule of 75, despite not recording a win over a Top-25 opponent since January 25. As a result, another boulder was thrown into the Trojans path to Phoenix. From First Four to Final Four, it will now take seven wins in 19 days to hoist the trophy, but USC doesn't see the play-in game as any different than the rest of the field.
"We don't look at it as an extra game. We just know this is the NCAA Tournament," head coach Andy Enfield said with a smirk. "We lose, we go home—if we lose we go home on Thursday and we have no more games for a long time."
"It gives us an extra game to warm up," Stewart said. "It's an extra game where we can hopefully get the nerves out before the first game and continue rolling after that."
The Trojans took their first step up the mountain four years ago. As for now, they lie with the peak on the horizon, gearing up for the final push to the summit.
With a Wednesday, USC will hopefully depart Dayton for a trip to Tulsa, Okla. with its sights set on making the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007 and its first national title.
The flight wasn't easy, rebuilding the program wasn't easy and the road to Arizona won't be easy, but then again, when has USC ever made anything easy?