It wasn’t always the smoothest trip, until the long wait for Selection Sunday. But for the third straight season, USC is on its way to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, clinching its ticket as the No. 10 seed.
The Trojans will take on Michigan State, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, on Friday at 9:15 am PDT in Columbus, Ohio.
USC (22-10) spent most of its season squarely in the bubble, its status swinging back and forth, depending on the week. He let himself sweat on Sunday until the penultimate pairing of the tournament was announced.
His name was finally called, leaving USC in the tournament for the third year in a row, a streak the program has matched only once more. Tim Floyd led the Trojans to the tournament in three of his four seasons as coach, from 2007 to 2009.
This year’s trip marks the fifth tournament invitation in 10 seasons at USC for Andy Enfield, making him the school’s most prolific coach in terms of tournament appearances.
“It’s great to be a part of a program that continues to develop and continues to show consistency,” guard Drew Peterson said. “We hope to do another race like the one we have done 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 faster ride last March, as USC, a No. 7 seed, was blown out by Miami.
The roles will be reversed this time. Like USC, Michigan State (19-12) enters the tournament after a quick exit from 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 has one of the most capable coaches in the tournament. 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 never assured in November. USC slipped in a season-opening loss to former Enfield team Florida Gulf Coast, a school that finished 7-11 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. External expectations for USC collapsed.
“We said to each other, we still have a lot of basketball left,” guard Boogie Ellis said. “We are not going to let this 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 very soon, the pieces began to fit together. Sophomore Kobe Johnson took a big step forward and became one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. Freshman Tre White became a reliable third scorer, filling a big hole in USC’s offense. In January, another talented freshman joined the fold, as Vincent Iwuchukwu returned from cardiac arrest to help strengthen a paper-thin frontcourt.
A resounding victory over UCLA in January seemed to herald the arrival of the Trojans and their point guard’s rise to 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 for scoring in USC’s last twelve games.
Ellis just couldn’t always run an inconsistent offense. A late trip through Oregon saddled the Trojans with two more losses to non-tournament teams, including one to Oregon State 11-21. 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 on the field. The question now is whether they have enough gas to stay there for a while.
“We have to get healthy,” Enfield said. “The last week and a half we have not been 100%. I think it showed. … (We have to go back) to the flow of how we played before we had some of these injuries.”
The Trojans will be hoping they can get more out of Peterson, who has played through a sore back the past two weeks. He fought powerfully from the field in USC’s loss to Arizona State, shooting just 2-for-12.
USC will need him to keep up with Michigan State, a team known for heating up from three-point range. The Spartans are fourth in the nation in three-point percentage, where the strong Trojan defense has been vulnerable at times.
Peterson did not express much concern about his condition in the first round. For him and Ellis, the two main leaders, Friday marks the beginning of their swansongs at USC.
“It’s win or go home now,” Peterson said. “All the cards are on the table, so we’re going to be ready to go.”