No time for Trojans to be triumphant

This 14-3 USC team could be very good but just because they're so much better than they were a year ago when most of these same players finished 3-15 in the Pac-12 and so far below their ability is no reason to get to feeling too good. They could be a lot better if only they figure out how to finish and that is the challenge now.

First of all, it wasn't an "upset."

USC has better players, has more athletes and the Trojans were at home in front of a fired-up crowd (even if there were several thousand visiting fans in Galen Center) for USC's heart-stopping 103-101 four-overtime win over Arizona Saturday.

And as much as you have to hate it the way a 14-3 Trojans team that surely should have been ranked and atop the Pac-12 at 4-0 now hasn't figured out how to finish games, at least they're getting closer to figuring some things out.

After jumping out to double-digit leads with full-court transition offense off a scrambling, overplaying defense that encourages all of USC's athletes to run the court, take chances, beat opponents down the floor and take their shots, preferably in-rhythm three-pointers when they get them, you have to think they'll figure it out.

They have to, really. This team is too good to keep blowing second-half leads of 22 (in a loss to Washington), 12 (against Arizona) and 15 points (out of a 17-point lead against Arizona State) in the past week.

What the Trojans figured out Saturday was how they were not going to allow themselves to lose even if they didn't exactly know how to win at the end of many of those 60 long minutes. They learned how not to get beat by a seventh-ranked Arizona team that does know how to win.

The Trojans learned how not to give in. How to keep competing even if some of the final minutes in regulation and the overtime periods were reminiscent of last year's hesitant half-court team. What a crime if that would have been the outcome here after the effort and excellence these Trojans displayed so much of the Arizona game.

But this is no time for triumphalism about this team or that game. There's plenty of work needed to get to where this team's talent could take it. Just because they were really bad a year ago shouldn't get us to say they've done plenty to put that behind them. They haven't.

If anyone wants to watch last year's team with most of these same players, the one that played to all the Trojans' weaknesses, we can put on a tape of USC's 12-20 team with its 3-15 Pac-12 record and eight homecourt losses. That's the team with four of these five starters and six of its first eight back that finished No. 198 in its RPI ranking. We don't want to see that team looking like that ever again.

Even ESPN finally admitted "this team is for real" and absolutely one of the top 35 teams in the country with a claim on an NCAA tournament spot. But ESPN also mostly took note of how Arizona lost not how USC won.

So what now for Andy Enfield's team that is on the cusp, after two of the most forgettable seasons in USC hoops history, of making a run at a Pac-12 title, the NCAA tournament and who knows what if they all come back next season.

There aren't many teams with a guard who can go-go like Julian "JuJu" Jacobs. His power and speed and smarts controlling a team that's playing the way he can play the game -- and the way not many others in the nation can -- is a thing of beauty as were a number of his 18 points Saturday.

Until USC slowed it down. And then it can't, as happened in the last 5:30 against Arizona when USC blew that 12-point lead.

The rest of the returnees from a year ago -- Elijah Stewart with a game-high 27 points and Nikola Jovanovic and Jordan McLaughlin with 17 points each -- weren't too shabby. Add in freshman Benny Boatwright's 15 points and USC's 10 blocked shots and just a dozen turnovers on 91 possessions and this is a team that can play.

But with the Pac-12 schedule that has USC on the road for the next three games -- at UCLA and then back up to the Oregon schools -- this could all change in a heartbeat. It could if USC doesn't keep improving as it has.

If it doesn't keep demanding the kind of play that has people nationally at least asking how good this USC team might be. We think it could be very good. That last year was the anomaly. This is who this team is.

They are extremely athletic, have a better 1-2 assisting guard pair than any other team in the nation, have more quality three-point shooters than any team in the nation and can transition from defense to quick-scoring offense as well as any team in the nation. If they only will.

One of the challenges now for Andy Enfield and his staff is simply this: They've done a great job getting these players here, or at least getting the ones who were already coming here close to playing to their top-end ability much of the time.

Now they have to figure out how to finish. They sort of/kind of did that Saturday when they didn't allow Arizona, after allowing the Wildcats back into the game, to finish.

Now they have to figure out that finishing part -- how to play fast and fearless for 40 full minutes. The depth is there. The skill set is.

One of the amazing transformations is to watch the way they scramble on defense, helping out one another with their athleticism, challenging shooters without fouling, and as they did on Arizona's final possession, getting two flicks on the dribbling basketball from both Jacobs and McLaughlin, completely destroying Arizona's timing and chance for an under-control last attempt.

It's not just on offense where USC has to learn how to play fast and furious for 40 full minutes. It's on defense. They have to attack, not stand around, as they did when Arizona made up those last dozen points.

Again, this isn't meant in any negative way. This team is so much better than it was a year ago. That's a given. But it was so much better than it played last season.

And now it has a chance to show it can be so much better than anyone realized. It can do things very few teams can do because they just don't have the combination of athletes, the guys who can run and jump, and the shooters that USC has.

But you're only as good as you play. And you better get better.

This team can -- and should. It has to look at this as if it hasn't done anything yet.

But it could. It absolutely could.

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


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