LOS ANGELES – On the one hand, they fight. This can’t be overstated.
Inside the most hostile of environments Wednesday night at Cal’s Haas Pavilion, a packed-out gym jeering like a cage match and booing Bronny James every single time he touched the ball, this USC team somehow managed to string together enough stops and Isaiah Collier drives to flip a 15-point lead to an overtime battle. They rarely quit on games, and players and coaches have stuck around long after the close of practices for pow-wows to try to figure out what’s gone wrong; for bickering over playing time and Boogie Ellis’ comments that this team needed to “have some more pride,” they have still battled through the nightmare.
On the other hand, they are fatally raw. This can’t be understated. There was a stretch, in that second-half comeback against Cal, where Bronny James missed two free throws, USC got a stop, then Kobe Johnson missed quite literally a point-blank uncontested layup, then USC got another stop, and then Johnson missed two free throws. They continue to be dominated on the glass; James, at a generous 6-foot-4, led the Trojans with five rebounds. They continue to leave points at the line; they shoot 70% as a group.
“It’s frustrating,” Enfield said postgame, when asked about the inconsistency of a group that competes is its own worst enemy at times.
“When you say, how do you fight through it, or how do you prepare – our guys, their attitudes have been great,” Enfield said, later, to another question. “I mean, they wanted to win this game. They fought. In the locker room afterwards, they were very upset that we lost the game, and I think they’re going to come out Saturday and play as hard as they can.”
There is desperately little time – eight games, starting with Stanford Saturday, and a Pac-12 tournament – to make something of this Jekyll-and-Hyde group. And that trip to Vegas, in March, is the absolute last chance this USC team has to make the NCAA tournament, an expected goal before the start of the season. When asked after the loss to Cal, Collier said he still felt the group could win the conference tournament in Vegas in March, because what else could he say, really?
Except he actually seemed to mean it.
“I feel like this game is a huge lesson for us,” Collier said.
Squint, very narrowly, and there’s a non-zero chance. Collier and Ellis are back healthy, and USC (9-14, 3-9 and last in Pac-12) has its full roster available for what seems like the first time all year. If USC beats Washington in March to finish as the 10th seed for the Pac-12 tourney, they’d most likely play a team like Stanford or Cal in the first round, assuming current standings continue somewhat close to form. Win that game, and they’d play the two-seed in the next round, most likely Washington State or Oregon. The Pac-12 is incredibly middle-heavy in this final season, and USC could conceivably not have to face Arizona – easily the best team in the conference – until the tournament championship.
“This is college sports,” Enfield said after the loss to Cal. “You don’t win every game. You gotta fight through the adversity.”
USC at Stanford
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Maples Pavilion, Stanford, CA
TV/radio: ESPNU/790 AM