USC basketball . . . 'the big picture'

Time to take a step back and a look ahead at where this USC basketball team could find itself . . . if it keeps working hard and improving. These Trojans have a chance.

With the weekend off and a road trip to Oregon next week, this might be the best time to step back and take a look at where this USC basketball team might be able to take this 15-3 start and back-to-back-to-back wins over Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA.

A "big picture" look as Andy Enfield said of USC's 14-point win over the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion Wednesday. "A great win," Andy said, "but only one game."

Exactly. Two games next week at Oregon and Oregon State make that clear. You're only as good as you play in that next game. Although just how good this out-of-the-Top-25 Trojans team that's 4-1 in the Pac-12 and easily should be 5-0, well it's certainly up for debate.

You might say that for the entire Pac-12. How good is this league? One take has it looking like things are pretty good. According to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Pac-12 right now will get eight teams, most of any league in the nation, into the NCAA Tournament.

But by another standard, the AP and Coaches polls, only one Pac-12 team, Arizona, is Top 25 caliber. USC came close this week at No. 26 AP and No. 28 in the Coaches poll. And with no game this weekend, USC will certainly be ranked next week.

There are no off nights in the league this year," Andy says. "We have 13 more games to play." And every one of those against a team that thinks it can make the tournament.

"Our goal is to compete in the Pac-12 this year and whatever happens, happens," Andy said after the UCLA win. "We’re not looking forward and we’re certainly not going to go home and feel like we’ve done something."

Some people think they have. And if enough games end before 1 a.m. on the East Coast, as Wednesday's did, some of the voters might find that out. You could tell ESPN college basketball analyst Dan Dakich had very little clue as to the talent of this USC team when he came on the air for the postgame show. And who can blame him.

Jeff Sagarin's USA TODAY computer rankings that do wait for every score have USC No. 23, right ahead of Kentucky. And Ken Pomeroy's rankings have the Trojans at No. 19 this week, right behind a tough-defending No. 18 Valparaiso. We mention Valpo not only because we covered them during the run of Bryce Drew, now the Crusaders coach, but because ESPN's Lunardi has a No. 6 seed USC playing a No. 11 Valpo in the Midwest Region in Providence to open NCAA play.

We mention that not as some sort of accomplishment. It's not, not yet. But as a push-pull motivator for a USC team that shouldn't just be saying it's going to compete for a Pac-12 title but expecting to improve enough in the next two months to make itself the team to beat by then.

How about using Chimezie Metu as the example here for this team. Has any player in the country come farther faster than the 6-foot-10 Lawndale product with the athletic skills of his soccer-playing days as a youngster in Nigeria who can now touch the top of the backboard -- and do so in a heartbeat.

We thought it'd take a season or two. It doesn't seem to be. Taking "a thousand jump shots a day," as Chimezie said he's doing, will do that for you.

"He’s a much better player now than he was a month ago and even two months ago," Andy said. "He keeps learning. He’s learning spacing. He’s learning how hard he has to play. He’s learning the nuances of the college game." And teams like UCLA are learning that if he's in the same Zip Code, they just may have to adjust their shots.

Andy continued: "He's just learning the game. Learning how physical it is. What angles he has to take. He can’t relax. He can’t get out of his stance. Defensively, I thought he did a good job on two bigger players. He only weighs about 216 pounds, but he’s so quick and athletic. For him, he needs to use his legs, his speed, his quickness to have an impact in the game."

And we might add, what's good for Chimezie is good for the rest of this athletic Trojans bunch. They have the physical tools. If you don't think so, ask any Bruin fan who was in Pauley Wednesday. The Trojans just have to be confident in them -- and keep playing hard without taking themselves too seriously in one way and very seriously in another.

Right now, only Arizona, a No. 4 seed, is projected with a higher spot than USC's No. 6. Oregon has a No. 6 as well. Cal and Utah are No. 7's, Colorado No. 10, UCLA No. 11 and Washington No. 13. USC will get their shots at every one of them.

But so far, so good after just five Pac-12 wins against 31 losses in two seasons, Andy has obviously figured out how his guys have to play. And that has him No. 4 on ESPN's list of "Top 10 Coaches Proving Haters Wrong" with the way their teams have bounced back in their hot seat seasons.

Enfield admits his team "got a lot of attention [after the Arizona win] because it was a surprise to many people. It wasn’t a surprise to us . . . I thought they did a good job tonight [against UCLA] of just coming out and playing hard. I expect when we go on the road in seven or eight days to Oregon and Oregon State, they’ll be ready to play. If they don’t they’ll sit on the bench next to me."

Hard not to like the sound of that. And it seems like Andy has gotten through to the troops. Here's Chimezie on how good this team can be: "Very good. I think we can make a push to win the league and hopefully make a run during the postseason."

So you made a statement with last two wins? "Not yet. I think we still have a lot to prove. Last in the Pac-12 last year and I think we’re just trying to come out here and win every game."

Every game? How reasonable is that? Sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin says it this way: "We know how good we are, we just have to keep working hard every day in practice and keep getting better."

Amazing how when you do that, and you know, absolutely know how good you are and how hard you've worked, you can walk into Pauley Pavilion and both stare down -- and shut up -- a loud crowd that hates your guts and have fun doing it.

With the way this Pac-12 is playing out, these Trojans will get plenty of chances to do just that.

Shotgun Spratling's reporting of USC player and coach quotes contributed to this column. You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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