Hoops, hope and getting ready for spring

Wednesday opened early, finished late for Trojans hoping for hoops help and getting ready for spring football.

With the media asked not to interview the USC players at midweek winter throwing sessions, it's mostly observational takes for us on this early Wednesday morning. So here we go:

*** Trojans look both leaner and thicker (a combination of nutrition and weightlifting), more serious (especially the folks who were young and having fun in the fall) with a specific nod to the O- and D-line groups who have the numbers -- if not Leonard Williams -- for the likes of a rotation we haven't seen in quite a while and much further along compared to this point a year ago -- as we'd expect for Year 2 of the Steve Sarkisian Era.

*** Keep your eye on Steven Mitchell. Remember how much we liked one Buck Allen even if his coach didn't a couple of years back, well, that's how we're starting to think about Mitchell. He could be special with his hands, feet and explosiveness -- and a 100 percent rehabbed knee now.

*** Just a thought about leaders stepping up. Su'a Cravens is the guy to keep an eye on. He's a special talent in his own world in ways that special athletes are but also capable of taking guys with him if he will. He's a free spirit and free thinker and immeasurably important to this team going forward.

*** Speaking of a different look, Sark has that as well. Check it out. See what you think. As ESPN has just noted, ranking the USC job the third-best in the nation behind only Texas and Alabama. The USC coach with the No. 1 recruiting class in the No. 3 job has to have that look. John McKay had it. So did Pete.

CHECK THIS OUT: For more details on Wednesday's workout, check out WEDNESDAY WINTER WORKOUT GHOST NOTES.

Not worth getting upset over

OK, it's not exactly Auburn, Arkansas, Kansas State, Virginia Tech and Nebraska. But the nonconference home games USC announced Tuesday -- Utah State in 2016, Western Michigan in 2017 and UNLV in 2019 -- keep USC's record of not scheduling below the FBS level intact. Only UCLA and Notre Dame can match that.

Sure, it's USC's first-ever meeting against a Mid-American school when Western's Broncos roll in from Kalamazoo. But it doesn't require a return game and in a Pac-12 where every other year, the nine-game schedule gives the Trojans four games at home to five on the road, that's a factor. None of these games have to be returned the way Boston College had to be last fall.

And as much as we've seen the "What will this do to our strength of schedule?" comments, here's what we'll say about that. Win the Pac-12 and you're pretty much assured of making the four-team College Football Playoffs. It's that simple. As Pete Carroll always told his teams, win the Pac-12, get to the Rose Bowl and the rest will take care of itself. It didn't always work that way but it makes things simple.

In college football's toughest division now, the Pac-12 South, just get the job done there. If no SEC team will schedule USC, and Texas A&M couldn't drop the Trojans fast enough when they joined the SEC, so be it. USC does get Alabama in the 2016 in AT&T Stadium in the Cowboys Classic at Arlington, Tex., and then follows with a home and home with Texas in 2017 (in LA) and 2018 (in Austin) and a three-game series against BYU in 2019 (away), 2021 (LA) and 2023 (LA).

USC didn't need another tough home-and-home opponent in years it was already playing Notre Dame and Texas and nine Pac-12 opponents. And yes, we know USC opens next fall against Arkansas State (Sept. 5) and Idaho (Sept. 12) but if the Trojans beat Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, Utah, Notre Dame and UCLA after that, how much do you think those two games will matter?

Is Pete's doctorate USC's 1st shot at NCAA?

Just a thought here but we've been hearing the rumblings that with the imminent release of the NCAA emails in the Todd McNair lawsuit, USC administrators were mulling over doing something -- anything -- to show that they too were not going to take it any more. It was time.

And so we wonder if the decision to award an honorary doctorate to Pete Carroll was one of those "take that" moments to the NCAA.

"Carroll returned USC football to national prominence during his nine-year tenure as head coach at the university,' Tuesday's press release says. "His 'Always Compete' philosophy has led to a successful four-decade career in football. Carroll is one of just a few coaches in football history to have won a Super Bowl and a national college championship. He is also the founder of A Better LA and A Better Seattle, two gang-violence prevention and community-building organizations that empower inner-city youth and forge relationships with service organizations."

Pardon us for thinking that a USC that paid little attention to the Carroll years in the McKay Center has now rediscovered that not only was the Carroll Era at USC one of the bright shining accomplishments of the university at any time in its history, not just in sports, but something to be proud of. And to brag about. And be very grateful for. And the NCAA can take that and . . . , well, you can fill in the blanks. It's a small step. But it's a start.

Here's hoping

OK, we know they say hope is not a plan but right now, it's all this USC hoops program has. As bad as things are after falling to 2-14 in the Pac-12 after the seventh loss in the league Wednesday to Washington State when the Trojans were within reach the final minute only to fall, they're not going to make a change two years into the Andy Enfield Era. Sure, this team hasn't performed to anyone's expectations, especially Andy's, but Year 3 is a-coming.

A lot of that failure falls on Andy, a really good guy who it's easy to root for until you think what this is doing to the program, the players, the home court environment, the loyal, if small, corps of fans and the sense that this thing is going somewhere. Andy is convinced it is. "We were right there," he said after the Trojans came roaring back from a 19-point deficit, 55-36, with 11:35 left to make it 66-63 with 1:42 left. "But we're not there yet."

Not when they're 2-14 in the Pac-12, on top of the three suspensions and two players in a post-practice fight in the last week. But more than anything, having a team that does not know what to do or how and when to do it, is the issue.

Watching this physically underwhelming team try to run its halfcourt offense is a double dose of futility -- for the viewer and the viewed. If this game would have been a 400-meter relay, USC wins by 25 meters. But did the Trojans' edge in speed translate into what they did? Not enough. Almost but then that's the story of the season.

As the Trojans so often do, USC played its horrific halfcourt game much of the time against a bigger, stronger, better-drilled (hard to believe we're saying this about an Ernie Kent Washington State team) where there was little payoff for a team that wanted to press early but couldn't make enough shots to set it up. But still, this team should run even on made baskets.

And it should build on those Elijah Stewart defensive plays with the Malik Marquetti transition threes on a career night that saw him score 16 points. But it was the play-hard-until-he-drops work of Julian Jacobs (16 points, nine assists, five rebounds, three steals, a block and not one turnover taking over for Jordan McLaughlin, who is out for the season with upcoming surgery on both shoulders, it appears, and a five- to six-month rehab, that made this close.

"No comment," Marquetti said when asked about all the troubles USC has had to face the last five days. But the right comment on what USC must do: "Play hard, stay together," he said.

Nikola Jovanovic finished it off with words every USC fan can only hope are true: "Our time is coming."

So is Year 3 of the AEE.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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