With a loss on Sunday to Utah, USC basketball’s position on the NCAA tournament bubble got even more tenuous, but opportunity awaits.
As February approached, Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Times highlighted a disturbing trend for USC basketball.
“Finishing hasn’t always been easy for USC under Enfield, with February proving to be a particularly brutal time of year,” Kartje wrote. “Over his six seasons in Los Angeles, Enfield’s Trojans are 14-31 during the penultimate month of the college basketball calendar.”
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That was before the Trojans lost their first three games of the month. After a bounceback sweep against the Washington schools, USC dropped two more to Colorado and Utah.
Enfield’s February record now sits at 16-36.
That’s why USC finds themselves with dwindling NCAA Tournament hopes going into their final three games of the regular season.
Before Sunday’s contest with Utah, Jerry Palm of CBS Sports had USC on the bubble with a “tough finishing schedule” to navigate. He described the Utes as the “easiest of their four remaining games.”
To be fair, the Trojans lost on Sunday, 79-65, under difficult circumstances. Nick Rakocevic was extremely ill and had to be pulled from the game. Jonah Mathews played through the effects of the same stomach bug. Onyeka Okongwu was only just returning from a concussion and Isaiah Mobley was hampered by a sprained ankle.
Next up are Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA, three of the five teams who rank ahead of the Trojans in the Pac-12 standings. The Sun Devils have ridden a seven-game win streak to the top of the conference. UCLA is on a five-game streak of their own.
The Trojans may need to win all three to ensure a bid, outside of a Pac-12 tournament championship.
As of Monday, Bracket Matrix’s collection of predictions averaged USC out to an 11-seed.
Joe Lunardi of ESPN featured USC as one of the “Last Four In,” facing a play-in game against Providence (If that scenario sounds familiar, it should. In 2016 the Trojans were knocked out in the first round of the tournament by the Friars. In 2017 they got their revenge by beating Providence in a play-in contest.)
Palm’s predictions put USC in as the 10-seed in the South bracket, still on the bubble. Though a 6-1 mark in Quad 2 helps the Trojans’ case, a 2-7 record in Quad 1 will be a tough sell. Ranking 58th in strength of schedule isn’t a favorable number either.
In 2018, the selection committee passed over USC despite finishing second in the Pac-12 with a 23-11 record. The Trojans had an RPI of 34 back then, making them the highest-ranked team from the Power 5 to fail to secure a bid.
“We looked at how teams did against tournament-caliber teams, either teams that are in the tournament or teams that we feel are tournament-caliber teams,” NCAA selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen explained at the time.
The selection process has changed somewhat with the introduction of the quadrant system, but the larger point remains. The committee wants to know that the teams they put in the field are capable of going toe-to-toe with quality opponents.
Fortunately for USC, they will have a shot to greatly improve their resume. On Thursday they will take on Arizona at the Galen Center. With the Wildcats ranked eighth in NET, the opportunity for an additional Quad 1 win is on the table.
The Trojans challenged Arizona in their last meeting in Tucson, falling 85-80 with a furious comeback making it interesting in the end.