USC Basketball’s First Round NCAA Exit Isn’t the End of the Road

Mar 17, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; USC Trojans guard Katin Reinhardt (5) and teammates react after their game against the Providence Friars at PNC Arena. The Friars 70-69. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 17, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; USC Trojans guard Katin Reinhardt (5) and teammates react after their game against the Providence Friars at PNC Arena. The Friars 70-69. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

USC basketball’s first foray into the NCAA Tournament since 2011 didn’t go as planned, as the Trojans fell to Providence 70-69 on a final second basket in Raleigh. But the setback could set the stage for the future.

Before the season, if you told USC fans they would have the opportunity to make the NCAA tournament and lose on a near buzzer-beater in a No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup, they’d probably take it.

The Trojans were atrocious the last two years, which made 2016 a make-or-break year for Andy Enfield in his third season. Having a 5-31 conference record will do that.

And so right on cue, USC looked like a brand new basketball team this season.

They started the season 5-0 for the first time since 2001, and beat eventual NCAA Tournament first round winners Yale and Wichita State in non-conference play.

As cliche as it sounds, they did it by playing their brand of basketball. The Trojans pushed the tempo, relied on five different players who averaged 10-plus points per game, and were nails from behind the arc.

Yet despite their uptick in play and a 16-2 home record to feel good about, the reality is that USC was still a young team.

Mar 17, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; USC Trojans guard Julian Jacobs (12) dribbles the ball as Providence Friars guard Kyron Cartwright (24) defends during the second half at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Only seldom-used reserve Strahinja Gavrilovic is a senior. Team leader and slam dunk enthusiast Julian Jacobs is a junior, while talented playmakers Bennie Boatwright and Jordan McLaughlin are a freshman and sophomore, respectively.

Playing true to form, the talented yet inexperienced Trojans struggled to close out the 2016 season as losers of six of their final eight Pac-12 games.

They fell big on the road, while forcing low-percentage shots, falling victim to turnovers and not sticking to the efficient game that got them ranked on multiple occasions.

Thursday night in Raleigh, those are exactly the culprits of their first round demise to Providence.

In a evenly matched back-and-forth game, USC flirted with their style of game in the second half when the Friars went cold. A five-minute scoring drought by the Friars led to a five-point lead for the Trojans.

But much like the season itself, it was the end that couldn’t come together for Enfield’s team.

Armed with a late lead, they pushed the tempo when they could have eaten clock. They got to the line and missed free throws when they could have extended their lead.

And most of all, they gave Providence four different tries in the final 27 seconds to erase a one-point deficit.

You can give your local youth parks and rec team that many chances and eventually they’ll make a basket.

The Friars did, with Rodney Bullock somehow sitting unmarked in the lane for a minimally contested game-winning floater with a single second left on the clock.

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A win that would have been worn as a badge of accomplishment for a program seemingly turning a corner, escaped from their grasp in the most frustrating of ways.

And while you can nit-pick every moment that could have gone differently –Lord knows you could write a dissertation about McLaughlin’s decision to fire a reckless breakout pass to Julian Jacobs with 2:21 left, which was intercepted by Kris Dunn and turned into a crucial four-point swing with USC up five– the reality comes down to expectations.

Going into 2015-16, just making the tournament felt like a lofty and admirable achievement. Going into February, it was a Sweet Sixteen projection that was the guiding light.

Mar 17, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Providence Friars forward Ben Bentil (0) attempts to shoot the ball as USC Trojans forward Chimezie Metu (4) and guard Elijah Stewart (30) defend during the second half at PNC Arena. The Friars wins 70-69. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A strong start and dismal finished has turned a wildly successful campaign into one that feels like a letdown for USC.

Yes, USC was ahead of schedule and yes they were seconds away from getting their crack at No. 1 seed North Carolina on Tobacco Road itself.

But for a team with as much talent as they have –all of which is expected to return– mishaps at the end are the kind of motivation and scar tissue good teams sometimes need to develop.

Case in point, look at the 2000 Trojans. Henry Bibby’s team was stockpiled with talent, but they were young and inexperienced.

Brian Scalabrine was a grizzled veteran as a junior, but Sam Clancy was a freshman, while both Brandon Granville and David Bluthenthal were sophomores.

They started the season 13-6, beat No. 2 Arizona at the Sports Arena and entered February as a ranked team. They then lost eight of their next nine games and didn’t make the tournament.

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Sound familiar? That team also returned its starting five.

Bibby famously told his players they were going to the Final Four on Day 1 of training camp, and they wound up coming within minutes from getting there.

They got to the Elite Eight without having a taste of the tournament. Next year’s Trojans enter their galvanized campaign knowing how to get there, along with knowing how sickening it feels to lose once you do.

It’s little consolation now, but despite their finish, USC basketball has more to look forward to than to dwell on.

The ball’s in their court to make the jump happen.