In a season full of ups and downs, USC enters the 2019 Pac-12 Tournament on a downward spiral. Two weeks ago, USC looked to secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament and have a shot at the storied NCAA Tournament. Now, the Trojans have to win four games in four days to win the Pac-12 and receive a tournament bid.
USC's collapse comes from a 2-7 record in their last nine games. Still, their losses have not been by wide margins, with five games decided by seven points or fewer. USC's biggest defeat was an 11-point loss in the season finale at Colorado.
USC's close losses show that this year's Trojan squad can battle with any Pac-12 team. After a five-point loss in the home finale against Oregon State, USC head coach Andy Enfield told reporters that the team needed to find a leader before the team could succeed in the conference.
“Great teams have great leaders on them, usually. If you look at championship-level teams, there’s great leadership, and there’s an unselfish spirit…We’ve had that the last three years. This year, it’s been a little more of a struggle with that.”
This season, USC has at times rallied around senior forward Bennie Boatwright, who leads the team with 18.1 points per game. Boatwright has refined his deep shot, leading USC with 82 3-pointers made on the season.
Inside the paint, junior forward Nick Rakocevic continues to improve. Rakocevic leads USC in rebounds, blocks and made free throws. With 14.9 points per game, he complements Boatwright's outside presence. When the two find open space on the court, USC looks unbeatable.
While USC can be dangerous, the team struggles to keep their star players on the court.
Rakocevic leads the team in fouls, recording four or more fouls in five straight games.
Without Rakocevic, USC turns to sophomore forward Victor Uyaelunmo, who has improved but has not found a consistent shot. Uyaelunmo and freshman forward J'Raan Brooks have played a combined 14.5 minutes per game while Rakocevic is on the bench, but they have only contributed 2.9 points per game.
In addition to depth, the Trojans have struggled at the free-throw line. USC has made 64.1 percent of their free throws on the season, good for 334 in the country (out of 351 teams) and second-to-last in the Pac-12, ahead of only UCLA.
Las Vegas hopefuls
Fortunately for the Trojans, its first match of the Pac-12 Tournament features a winnable game against the depleted Arizona Wildcats. In USC's first and only match of the season against Arizona, the Trojans had four double-digit scorers in a lopsided victory, 80-57. USC's defense looked stellar, holding the quick-paced Arizona lineup to 27.8 percent shooting from the field.
If Rakocevic can stay on the court and USC hits at least seventy percent of their free throws, Wednesday is a winnable matchup. A first-round victory would bring the Trojans to a .500 season record and a second-round matchup against the conference-leading Washington Huskies.
Washington received a first-round bye, so the Trojans will be coming off of less than a day of rest while Washington will have had ample time to prepare for their match. The Huskies are familiar with first-round tournament struggles after receiving a No. 1 seed. In 2012, as the No. 1 seed, Washington lost a 2-point match to Oregon State, pushing them out of NCAA Tournament contention.
The Huskies have been a beatable force this season, recently losing to the 8-22 California Golden Bears. In addition, the Huskies only totaled 47 points in their final game of the season, a loss to the Oregon Ducks.
In USC's only match against Washington this season, the Trojans exhibited many of their typical struggles in a 75-62 loss. Rakocevic fouled out, while USC allowed 14 steals and 17 offensive rebounds.
For USC to win a potential second-round matchup against Washington, the Trojans have to limit interior fouls and hope Washington continues to struggle offensively. With a victory, USC would still be two games away from a Pac-12 championship victory.
A semifinal matchup would likely pit the Trojans against fourth-seeded Oregon State or fifth-seeded Colorado. USC has a combined 0-4 record against the two teams.
A historically weak Pac-12
While the Trojans have not gone on a four-game winning streak in the Pac-12 this season, the conference has struggled to perform on a national stage. Presently, zero teams from the conference are featured in the Associated Press' Top 25 rankings.
According to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, only Washington and Arizona State would receive a bid in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams are projected to receive an 8-seed or lower, a historically poor performance for the conference.
As it stands, any team from the Pac-12 could make a deep conference tournament run and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. This year has a great chance of being the first Pac-12 Tournament ever to feature a five-seeded or lower champion. Traditional Pac-12 powerhouses Oregon, UCLA and Arizona are seeded 6, 7 and 9 respectively.
Bennie Boatwright, Shaqquan Aaron and Devin Fleming will all be playing in their final Pac-12 Tournament this week. Boatwright will look to end his USC career with another strong performance. He has made 30 3-pointers in his last six games, with a high of 10 3-pointers on Feb. 16 against California.
Another possible Trojan departure is freshman guard Kevin Porter Jr. Porter has only started one game since Nov. 20 after an injury and a disciplinary suspension. Despite only recording 9.2 points per game, NBA scouts have been present at the Galen Center to watch Porter play.
CBS' mock draft service has Porter ranked No. 22 in the country, down from a potential top-10 pick earlier this season. Porter will need to continue to impress scouts in Las Vegas if he wants to remain a first-round talent going into the NBA Draft Combine in May. Porter was a projected one-and-done coming into this season, but his season performance has put his departure into question.
Annenberg Media tournament predictions
Game 1: USC uses their extended rest to execute their game plan against Arizona to perfection, securing a double-digit win and a chance to take down league-leading Washington. USC 77, Arizona 63
Game 2: USC struggles in the paint as Washington guard Matisse Thybulle looks to improve on his seven-steal performance in the Trojans first matchup against the Huskies. The Trojans take the game down to the wire but lose against the well-rested Huskies. USC 66, Washington 70
A win and a loss would put USC on the bubble for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which takes place from March 19 to April 4. A NIT berth is not what USC was hoping for coming into this season, but the team will be able to use the tournament for extra practices and more chances to improve as a team before the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation comes to campus next season.