One step forward and then a slip in the other direction. That was USC basketball in a home-opening week that should have seen the Trojans beat both Bay Area teams instead of falling 78-76 to Stanford Sunday night.
And should have been accomplished in front of a Galen Center crowd that both stayed in their seats and stayed in the game, that made noise when appropriate, that seemed to be enjoying itself on all the good plays the Trojans made and quietly let pass the many others that weren't. We really haven't seen that in a while.
And if freshman point guard Jordan McLaughlin had not tripped himself up on his drive to the basket with a couple of seconds left and gotten off a four- or five-foot floater that was there, USC could have had a two-game home Pac-12 win streak the way good teams are supposed to.
"We had a chance to win, that's all you can ask for," Andy Enfield said. And considering they were down 68-55 with 10:55 left and having trouble cutting off baseline drives and locating the three-point shooters, maybe he's right for this night.
But USC fans can and should ask for more of this basketball program. Much more. Because this should be a good team.
And a USC crowd that looked and sounded like more than the 3,987 listed seemed to agree. Can't remember the last time we'd heard anything like this here, with the Trojans not out of a game they'd tried to hand over to a good 11-4 Stanford team (3-1 in the Pac-12) that badly needed it after a double-overtime loss to UCLA Thursday.
"It's going to be tough to sleep tonight," McLaughlin said, returning to action after a shoulder separation kept him out of the Cal game and allowed him to practice just once this week. "That's what you live for, to have the ball in your hands at the end."
But what this USC program has to start living for is winning these kinds of games. And using one to build on to the next and the next especially with UCLA coming into Galen Wednesday. "It should be fun," McLaughlin said.
Winning it would be a lot more fun. Although this crowd didn't fault USC for trying. The bar has been set pretty low. And that's not a good thing.
Nor is having to explain how, as McLaughlin did, "against Cal, we were locked in from the beginning. Tonight we came out slow. We can't come out slow in the Pac-12." Nor can you give up 49 first-hallf points to a team averaging 73.
Not unless you finish really fast. And after one big play after another, down by one, the Trojans called timeout in transition at midcourt with 7.7 seconds left. And then Stanford came out in a zone, maybe surprising McLaughlin just a bit as he drove the lane.
"When I crossed over I just slipped," McLaughlin said. "I lost my footing and slipped. I saw they were zoned up . . . I felt I'd get a good shot."
He didn't get any shot. And that was it. After allowing Stanford to hit on nine of its first 13 three-pointers, USC held the Cardinal to one of its final 12. And those easy baseline drives were no longer there. And so they came close.
But the worry here is that people unaccustomed to winning for as long as USC fans have been in basketball will think that's good enough. It's not. Oregon State under a first-year coach whose name no one knows but who can really coach beat Arizona Sunday in Corvallis. That's what should have happened here.
This Trojans team and these fans should be thinking win every time they run out onto the court at Galen. Time to start taking USC basketball seriously. Time to stop making excuses. For everybody, from coaches and players to administrators and fans.
The one other sport that matters after football when we measure whether a college athletic program is doing what it's supposed to do -- competing -- is there for the USC to do just that -- compete. If only USC will.
"We're looking to ramp this up as a national thing," Enfield said, "but to do that, the first thing you have to do is win league games." We agree: "YOU HAVE TO WIN LEAGUE GAMES."
Sure, in the old days, USC did on occasion and no one noticed in the shadow of Westwood. But not now. With games on every night and day at any hour and on any network with a signal, basketball is much more present. If you're any good, you get noticed.
It wasn't always that way. When we strarted covering basketball in the Pac-10, now the Pac-12, it was a Thursday-Saturday thing. If the Trojans were awful or in for it one weekend, you could hold your breath and the bad news might pass. Not now.
Take this weekend, or rather the five days from Wednesday, when USC hosted Cal, to the Sunday night here when Stanford was the guest, the Pac-12 is like everybody else. Basketball first. They'll figure out the academic stuff later. Gotta' be on TV. And on TV's schedule, which for the Pac seems to be late and later -- in the week and on the East Coast for sure.
So if it's going to be a TV deal, how can USC, down the street from LA Live and in a nearly brand new building on a sparkling campus, not make that work? We put a question mark there but we're not really asking. Of course they can.
How in the winter wonderland world do they put together high-powered programs in those high school basketball hotbeds of Colorado and Utah and kick them some Trojan butt? If they can do it, and do it often with LA kids who got away, it's time -- well past time, really -- for the Trojans to no longer get beat by kids coming home and by a team starting the same number of SoCal guys that USC did.
This can't wait until next year -- Year 3 of the Andy Enfield Era at USC. If it happened Wednesday, it could have happened again Sunday but against a Stanford team that looked like it had actually read its scouting report, that was not to be until the very end.
Even the return of leading scorer McLaughlin, who started slow but finished with 14 points in 29 minutes, only seemed to encourage USC's way-out-of-control ways on offense the first half. But he came back strong, even if he figured he was at best, "85 to 90 percent."
"He gave us tremendous effort and he left his heart on the court," Enfield said of McLaughlin's return. It also gave USC a pair of combo guards, with 6-foot-4 Julian Jacobs continuing to improve as the off-guard (16 points on six of nine shooting in 33 minutes).
But the Trojans were playing from behind in this one as Stanford got the shot it wanted nine times in its first 10 possessions. USC, just twice. Mostly the Trojans settled for flying flings that if we were scoring them would have gone down as turnovers not missed field goals. Sure, three of them went in, the kind of shots that shouldn't count unless you call "glass," but they weren't nearly enough the way USC played defense to start. Or didn't play it.
"I thought we really stepped up at the end," Enfield said. "We shut their driving lanes, contested threes and rebounded . . . We have potential. We were down double digits and came all the way back and cut it to one. That's a positive sign. We didn't give up."
Not positive enough. it's still an "L" in the record book for the 9-7 Trojans (1-3 in the Pac-12). "When you lose a game like this that we had a chance to win, that's all you can ask for." No again. You can ask for a win. USC has better athletes. That it had the chance in the end makes that case.
But then there's this. And we like the sound of some of it even if it comes after a loss. "Our staff loves our team," Enfield said. "They are young, energetic, fun. They don't always make smart decisions but we're so proud of them. We played a lot tonight with three freshmen and two sophomores on the court."
And that's great -- as long as those five don't come out "slow" and "not locked in." Not a lot to like about that.
The one good thing about young teams is the way they get better, the way they start to "get it." And not just in some games.
So no pass for trying hard and coming close.
Just use it for motivation Wednesday when the Bruins come across town to Galen. No more laydown games. No more explaining why there's any advantage over in Westwood. There really shouldn't be.
"Should be a very exciting game," McLaughlin said. "It's our crosstown rival . . . we're getting better every day."
Just not on this day, at least not for the first 30 minutes and despite hitting on an immensely improved 19 of 24 free throws (79.2 percent) and hustling for nine steals.
But in three days, they'd better be better. It's a home game against a UCLA team that's had its own ups and downs. No way this team should lose two in a row at Galen. Not ever. When you're recruiting players like this, they have to be locked in when they step on the court.
The loss dropped USC to 1-3 in the Pac-12 and into a ninth-place tie with Cal . . . this was only the second time in 10 games this season when USC outshot an opponent (49.1 percent to 46.2) and lost . . . USC's scoring average the last nine games is 72.1 points after averaging just 62.3 the first seven . . . Stanford's 49 first-half points were the most by a USC opponent this season with Colorado's 43 the previous high.You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at email@example.com.