Time to enjoy the ride, even from afar, which is where most USC fans will be when it the Trojans tip off at 6:50 or so Thursday evening in Raleigh, N.C. The NCAA tournament -- March Madness -- can be a fun ride if you’re one of the lucky ones. USC is thus far.
But so are 67 others. Fifty-two of them will be gone by this weekend.
And despite their No. 8 seed to Providence’s No. 9, the 21-12 Trojans open as 1.5-point underdogs in Vegas and more than that, it seems, if the professional pundits are any measure.
Providence (23-10) has the best player in the game, point guard Kris Dunn, who some thought might be the nation’s best although it hasn’t played out that way. And they have that Big East toughness, we’re told.
The Trojans have talent . . . but, but maybe this is as far as they go. Those seven losses in the last 10 games say that they’re just going to be happy to have made it and next year is their time is the general theme here.
And except for the UCLA game last week, it’s hard to argue with that. This does look like a team that, when faced with a hard-nosed opponent, has a toughness deficit.
Hard also to argue with a 5-10 record away from Galen Center, which is where USC will be Thursday – more than 2,500 miles away.
When it’s a battle of wills, or bodies, against a team with enough talent, a team that won’t give in, a team that’s well-prepared for what an athletic USC does well, USC does not do well. At least not for 40 minutes.
So here’s our challenge to a Trojans team that instead of looking at this week as the end of a turnaround season, as maybe a chance to get another win if the Friars really do believe their fans and the experts and think they’ll be advancing on to play No. 1 seed North Carolina Saturday for the right to go on to the Sweet 16.
Not that anybody back there has a clue. The three time zone difference and the Pac-12’s TV exposure make the West Coast terra incognita when it comes to the East Coast experts. That was obvious from Sunday’s post-selection shows.
”How good is Oregon?” they demanded of the No. 1 seed Ducks. How dare they steal a top seed from one of the favorites like Michigan State? Sure, the Ducks had by far the most impressive championship game win of the week in beating Utah a third time. And Virginia was coming in off a loss. But they’re from the ACC. That’s basketball country.
Charles Barkley at least tried to tell them. Phoenix resident Barkley kept saying he pays attention to the teams out here -- that the Pac-12 is really good and USC has talent. But as far as USC is concerned right now, they’re best served by coming in the way Andy Enfield’s Florida Gulf Coast team did three years ago – under the radar.
We’d like to see them just show up and play the way Taj Gibson, Nick Young and Daniel Hackett and Co. did when they took out Kevin Durant and Texas 87-68 in the 2007 NCAA tourney before North Carolina managed to finally foul Taj out the next game and the shorthanded Trojans, leading at the time, had no one to step in.
This USC team does. But what we’d like to see is the Trojans head East not with the thought of making this an extension of 2015-2016 but a start for what could be a special 2016-2017.
This season’s games don’t eliminate USC here. The Trojans are 5-8 against the NCAA field and like Providence, 1-2 against two common opponents – Arizona and Xavier – with USC’s win coming against Arizona and Providence beating Xavier.
So it’s not out of the question for a USC that ESPN calls “a balanced, high-octane, defense-sold-separately Trojans team.” But despite losing six of eight starting the end of January, the Friars are still a Top 25 defensive team.
And they’re not a grind-it-out, slow-it-down team, averaging 74 points a game to USC’s 81. That’s what the Trojans need. They need this game to be up and down. They need their athleticism and ability to run and jump and spot up for threes out of transition to matter more than muscling up on the blocks.
Against a team that doesn’t know them, or one that doesn’t care, USC will always have a shot. They can’t always force the game to go their way – make that most often cannot – but they can certainly play it if it goes that way.
Which gets us to Game 2, something you’re not allowed to think about, we know. But it’s the reason why Game 1 matters so much. Because Game 2 will not be a reunion for a winning Enfield with his old Florida Gulf Coast guys as the play-in team in the No. 16 spot.
That Saturday opponent would be the Tar Heels, who really can do one thing well on offense – and that’s get the ball up the floor and go to the glass and score in a hurry with bigs who can fly.
UNC averages 82 points, a point more than USC, and doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as well from three-point range (.314 to .385) as the Trojans. And let’s face it, if and when that game comes along, no way mighty UNC will be able to take the Trojans as seriously as they should in what would be a run-and-gun game.
So from where we’re sitting, this is exactly how USC should hope it plays out. That they show up ready to go Thursday and ready to play defense and get to Saturday. And then just have fun with it.
USC has absolutely nothing to lose this week and if it plays with confidence and toughness, mental and physical, who knows. It has a better shot to get to the Sweet 16 than Enfield’s FGC team did.
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