The silver and red confetti floated lazily from the ceiling, coating both the victors and the defeated in Arizona Wildcats colors. Defeat is how the USC Trojans season would close. Crashing, to a rudely abrupt halt as the comeback kids from California walked off the court, wiping someone else’s celebration from their jerseys.
The irony was particularly thick between the two clubs meeting because both had endured FBI investigations over during the season. Though only one player, USC’s De’Anthony Melton, was sidelined for the title bout.
This team had endured plenty over the course of just one season. USC started the season with anticipation around the team boiling over, as expectations of Elite Eight bids in the NCAA Tournament were the hot prediction around the program that battled into last season’s Sweet Sixteen round.
But the tide quickly turned on a team maligned with nearly as many problems off the court as there were on them. Despite numerous setbacks, the Trojans surge back in the final stanza of the season. USC was able to put themselves in position to play for the conference title. For a team with so many early problems, Southern California made a drive for the lofty preseason expectations around the program. Following a missed Tournament bid, the season leaves some questions on the table. How was such a maligned team with setbacks still able to vie for a conference title? What could have been?
In 2017, USC edged out SMU and Providence, which led to a toe to toe slug match with Baylor in the Round of 32. Despite the loss to the Texas team, the Trojans prospects were looking up. Their stellar class of De’Anthony Melton and Chimezie Metu would be back, along with upperclassmen Jordan McLaughlin and Bennie Boatwright. They would even have a role player swingman in Elijah Stewart. They had a roster loaded with players that just proved their tournament salt.
Then things started to hit the fan.
First, it was the allegations of bribery leveled against Melton, which sidelined him for what turned into the entire season and resulted in his eventual departure. On the court, things were not as simple. The problems not as evident as an FBI investigation. But the erosion was there as well.
USC covered up off-court issues with a 4-0 run to begin the season, clouding less impressive wins against schools like Lehigh and North Dakota State with an overtime road win against Vanderbilt.
The turnovers started to catch up to the team in their proceeding three-game skid, giving the rock away 15.7 times an outing. Exacerbating the issue was an injury to Boatwright and question marks around Stewart as he hit a cold shooting streak. A 5-1 run against out of conference cream puffs could not hide USC’s struggles defensively or their sloppy play. It was a problem that came back to hurt the team when they kicked off the PAC-12 play with a 2-2 start and a suspension to Metu (the star player) for hitting a Washington Huskies player in the family jewels. Every story about USC was a negative one, as they slowly slipped into the college basketball background.
After a tough start to conference play, the Trojans cleaned up their turnover problems and fixed the defense. They began scheming better around the top threats on opposing squads, clamping down on what gave other programs their teeth. They went on a six-game run through the conference play and were right back in the top of the PAC-12. Despite everything along the rocky road, the Trojans were still able to make a late-season push to relevance. The problem was everyone was already tuning them out.
The Trojans watched their season slip through their fingers like sand. They had the talent to still contend for the PAC-12 title. McLaughlin was four thin the country with 7.5 assists per game, Metu averaged 15.7 points and the team had 3-and-D wings in Boatwright and Stewart.
They lost their dynamic, dual-threat guard when Melton was suspended who would have paired excellently with the offensive production and playmaking of McLaughlin. As a freshman, Melton averaged 8.3 points per game and 1.9 steals. He could have been both the perfect fit with the offense and helped balance some of the early turnover problems.
If everything does not break badly for the Trojans at the same time, this is a Tournament team that advances at least one round. With Melton, this team has a final four talent.