Los Angeles Times
Bumpy ride ends in berth for USC
Trojans earn third straight tournament invitation and will face Michigan State after uneven season.
It wasn’t always the smoothest ride, all the way down to the long wait on Selection Sunday. But for the third straight season, USC is on its way to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, receiving a No. 10 seed.
The Trojans will face Michigan State, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, on Friday at 9:15 a.m. PDT in Columbus, Ohio.
USC (22-10) spent most of its season squarely on the bubble, its status swinging back and forth, depending on the week. It was left to sweat it out Sunday until the second-to-last pairing of the tournament was announced.
Its name was eventually called, leaving USC in the tournament for the third consecutive year, a streak the program has matched only one other time. Tim Floyd took the Trojans to the tournament in three of his four seasons as coach from 2007 to ’09.
This year’s trip marks the fifth tournament invite in 10 seasons at USC for Andy Enfield, making him the most prolific coach at the school in terms of tournament appearances.
“It’s great to be a part of a program that’s continuing to build and continuing to prove its consistency,” guard Drew Peterson said. “We’re hoping to make another run like we have in the past.”
Two years ago, USC won three games during a magical March run before falling in the Elite Eight to Gonzaga. It was a much quicker trip last March, as USC, a No. 7 seed, was upset by Miami.
The roles will be flipped this time. Like USC, Michigan State (19-12) enters the tournament after a swift exit in the Big Ten Conference tournament and a largely uneven season. The Spartans haven’t won three in a row since early January and have only three wins over NCAA tournament teams in that span.
But in Tom Izzo, Michigan State boasts one of the tournament’s most capable coaches. Izzo won a national title with the Spartans in 2000 and remains college basketball’s active leader in Final Four appearances with eight. His 53 NCAA tournament wins rank third among active coaches.
Another trip to the NCAA tournament for the Trojans was by no means assured in November. USC slipped up in a season-opening loss to Enfield’s former team, Florida Gulf Coast, a school that finished 7-11 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Outside expectations for USC cratered.
“We told each other, we still have a lot of basketball left,” guard Boogie Ellis said. “We’re not going to let this one game define us. I feel like Coach Andy believed in us, and we turned it around.”
It took another month or so for the Trojans to find their footing. But soon enough, the pieces started to fit. Sophomore Kobe Johnson took a major step forward, emerging as one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. Freshman Tre White developed into a reliable third scorer, stepping into a major void in USC’s offense. By January, another talented freshman joined the fold, as Vincent Iwuchukwu returned from cardiac arrest to help fortify a paper-thin frontcourt.
A resounding win over UCLA in January seemed to announce the Trojans’ arrival and their point guard’s ascent into stardom. Ellis scored 31 in that win over the Bruins and dominated the Pac-12 from there, averaging 24 points and twice setting career highs in scoring over USC’s final dozen games.
Ellis alone couldn’t always carry an inconsistent offense. A late trip through Oregon saddled the Trojans with two more losses to nontournament teams, including one to 11-21 Oregon State. A loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament a month later wouldn’t inspire much confidence either.
Still, the selection committee had already seen enough to put USC in the field. The question now is whether they have enough gas to stay there a while.
“We have to get healthy,” Enfield said. “Last week and a half, we haven’t been 100%. I think it showed. ... [We have to get] back into the flow of how we were playing before we had some of these injuries.”
The Trojans will have to hope they can get more out of Peterson, who has played through back pain the last two weeks. He struggled mightily from the field in USC’s loss to Arizona State, making only two of 12 shots.
USC will need him to keep up with Michigan State, a team known to get hot from three-point range. The Spartans rank fourth in the nation in three-point percentage, where the Trojans’ otherwise strong defense has sometimes been vulnerable.
Peterson didn’t express much concern about his status for the first round. For him and Ellis, the two senior leaders, Friday marks the start of their swan songs at USC.
“It’s win or go home now,” Peterson said. “All cards are on the table, so we’re going to be ready to go.”