LOS ANGELES-No, not a whole lot of people saw this coming. USC men’s basketball coach Andy Enfeld said as much during a postgame press conference following the Trojans’ regular season wrap up against Washington at Galen Center. Last year, when the Pac-12 Conference released its preseason media poll back in October, USC was predicted to finish seventh in conference play.
They ended their season tied for fifth place with a 23-8 overall record, and a 10-8 mark in conference play. If you take away those eight defeats in the Pac-12, the Trojans would be undefeated. That is pretty remarkable for a squad that lost its top player early in the season, and was basically starting its 2016-17 college basketball season from scratch. Percentage-wise, this is the best USC team since 1992.
The Trojans wasn’t expected to reach the number of victories they were able to reach (23) with their 82-74 takedown of the Huskies. And when stud Bennie Boatwright went down with an MCL injury last fall, a healthy dose of steadiness and winning games disrupted a doom and gloom scenario for the Trojans.
“Early on this season, we had so many new players, we didn’t have good flow,” Enfield said. “We didn’t get into flow until midway through the non-conference schedule. It’s amazing how our players stepped up. It’s impressive. And then we went into the Pac-12 play without Bennie. So I’m very proud of our team hanging tough. I’m very, very proud of our players to have 23 wins. We just wanted to compete, play our best and see what happens. Our goal was to get better each week.”
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves and curling up somewhere in a corner until Boatwright came back on the scene, both starters and reserve players stepped up their play and USC was able to get by its non-conference schedule unscathed and wound up notching a victory against No. 3 UCLA in the process. A better ending for Enfield and the Trojans would be to go deep in Pac-12 tourney play and get an invite into the NCAA Tournament.
But in many ways, the Trojans have already exceeded expectations for this season.
“It’s been a very challenging but very rewarding regular season for us,” Enfield said. “Our team has excelled with 23 wins. I don’t think anyone predicted this. We’ve had a very challenging schedule and were able to win a few of those games, and playing some Pac-12 games without Boatwright has been challenging and we son some of those, and we were able to go on the road and win some games.
“We know the selection committee will do what they do,” Enfield added. “We have no control over that. Our goal was to win today and go 23-8. We want to enjoy the moment. We want them to realize you accomplished something. We’ll take tomorrow off, take a deep breath and say we accomplished something.”
Getting up to beat a team once in a season is difficult enough. Doing it twice takes some kind of moxie. Repeating that feat a third time is quite a daunting task. This is the situation the Trojans find themselves in when they begin play on the first day of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament against Washington.
Yes, it’s the same Washington team the Trojans just handed a 74-58 defeat to end their regular season. It is that same Washington team that USC took on in Seattle on Feb. 1, and walked away with a 82-74 road win with Boatwright making an audacious return after being out for a lengthy time because of that knee injury he sustained against UC San Diego.
It was that same identical Huskies team that had USC on its heels earl on in the first half in the home and season finale for the Trojans. At one point, Washington was up 14-4. The Trojans, led by the usual outstanding playmaking of guard Jordan McLaughlin, caught fire and sprinted to a halftime lead of 39-33. McLaughlin, who scored 22 points and produced nine assists against the Huskies, was the steering point for USC in this game as he has been all season.
McLaughlin recognizes the challenge his team face in trying to beat Washington a third time.
“It’s going to be even harder (playing Washington again in the Pac-12 tourney),” said McLaughlin. ” It’s tough to beat a team two times, imagine a third. They’re a really good team. Washington hit some shots (in first half). We couldn’t make stops. But we played hard and started making stops. It’s March. You’ve got to play your best basketball. The bigger the game and the stakes, that’s when I play best.”
When asked if he saw the Trojans winning as many games as they had this season, McLaughlin said going through the process was most rewarding.
“What’s best is growing through adversity, knowing we’d be in this position,” said McLaughlin. “The young guys came in, growing and playing like they are now. I’m thankful to have gone undefeated in the non-conference. [Twenty-three] is a pretty great number.”