Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

USC basketball . . . Back or backing up?

So where is this USC basketball program right now. Off to a 14-0 start and a month in the AP Top 25, are the Trojans back . . . or are they backing up?

It could have been outside Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena, the McKale Center -- or Cameron Indoor. A bunch of college basketball fans heading out to find their cars had discovered something else right outside Galen Center.

The delightful Bill Raftery, longtime college basketball TV analyst, was holding court. And USC fans were swarming him right in front of The Gastropub, talking a little hoops. Just like it was one of those places where they really care about college basketball. And yet . . . 

Raftery wasn't there to see USC. He's doing the UCLA-Arizona game today on CBS and was getting an advance look at the Wildcats, who probably shouldn't have walked away a winner here Thursday, surviving a late-arriving Trojans team that showed only up for the last 11 minutes of a 73-66 loss.

But as quickly as the swarm of USC fans came, it went. After all, there were just 4,930 of them here -- and a number of those Wildcat fans.

After 10 home games, USC is averaging just 3,646 fans at Galen, less than half the Pac-12 average of 7,472 and better than only Stanford (3,617) and Washington State (2,318).

"Where is everybody?" a media person who normally does pro games in LA wondered at tipoff. "I thought there'd be a crowd here."

He wasn't alone. "And what about that area up there?" pointing to those unfinished boxes on the top level that have never been completed in the 10 years since Galen's dedication. "I guess they don't need them."

Good guess.

"If YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME," is the headline on the five-page spread the USC basketball media guide has for the Galen Center. But USC did build it -- and they haven't come.

Not even after last year's sweep of UCLA and this year's 14-0 start.

Not that we haven't been there before. We covered Kentucky football. The only difference. It's the SEC. Fans did show up for the football games there. Not so here for basketball.

Maybe that would have made a difference in a first half when a Trojan team completely unable to run its offense against the tall although relatively immobile Wildcats went eight for 31 from the field.

Would it have made USC more able to run some sort of an organized offense, get more shots the Trojans knew were coming out of the offense, get under control on those half-dozen hurried one-footers USC missed or play with some of that closing energy early on that USC exerted those final 11 minutes in a 29-11 run that came up short?

We may never know. The Trojans did play with some fire when the fans got into the game thanks to a Chick-fil-A giveaway chicken sandwich awarded the students after an Arizona double-brick miss of both ends of a two-free-throw opportunity with USC down 23 or something like that.

Is that what it takes, we wondered. Yikes.

And yet, that was what it took.

The fewer-than-5,000 fans got into it and despite the crowd that wasn't a third of what Arizona averages at home, they changed the game, upped the energy and seemed to influence the Wildcats into taking those same unwise, hurried shots. After all, this is not an Arizona team with great guards and eminently beatable on the road.

And yet, USC didn't beat the Wildcats. Maybe with Bennie Boatwright, they would have. For a USC team without its best player, joining the six Trojans defectors including three starters who could have come back for this season and chose to go elsewhere, Bennie's Grade 2 MCL sprain has had him out since Game 5.

Can any team lose seven players who could have been starters and not have it knock them back? Of course they can't. And yet, this team won its first 14.

But now that conference play is here, and teams know what you can do -- and more importantly can't do -- and play you that way unlike in the pre-conference schedule when teams play you more straight-up and USC wins on talent alone, this is a little bit tougher.

Most teams don't want to let USC get into its transition game that was so effective at the end Thursday when the Trojans' athleticism, their ability to get to the glass and shoot the open three when they're running and scrambling and flying around and don't have to run an uncertain half-court offense or defense, gives USC the edge.

But until USC has no choice, it seems willing to play half-court basketball with teams that have seven-foot shooters who no way want to get into an end-to-end game with USC. And so for those first 29 minutes, this game was played at Arizona's pace.

Too bad.

And while Arizona made good use of its seven-footers, USC had trouble keeping its second big -- 6-9 grad transfer Charles Buggs -- in the game at all. He had to sit down with two fouls and no points, rebounds or shots taken, just a turnover after just nine minutes in the first half. But then with a chance to start the second half, he picked up his third foul within seconds on a defensive alignment screw-up and sat down the rest of the way.

So as much as USC needs to play faster, it needs to play smarter.

And as much as you have to love the way in games like Thursday, there's an obvious confidence in these Trojans that they can come back. That they are good enough to pull it off.

But in the end, what you don't see is the confidence that when it comes to crunch time, those final minutes when the Trojans must make the correct play in their half-court offense or defense, it doesn't seem like they have the sense that they will. Because too often they won't.

Of course, it doesn't help that these games are officiated by the in-over-their-head Pac-12 guys in stripes who thought they were going to be able to take the second half off in this one and then found themselves having to pay attention. Only they couldn't.

Had there not been replay reviews, the players would have had to call the end of this game. It looked like they really weren't bothering to watch as play after play, time after time, these guys had to go to the monitor to see what exactly had happened. And then on second viewing, they still got it wrong. Embarrassing, we'd say, for a conference that's unfortunately well past the point of being embarrassed about stuff like this.

But what about USC? In a great building. In a perfect location. Where even at rush hour, when too many Pac-12 games start for TV, you can still get here unlike at Pauley Pavilion, no one comes.

So the question is whether it matters. Does USC care?

Is it time to take a step back and ask what has to happen to make USC basketball, in a still new building on a one-of-a-kind urban campus just a mile-and-a-half from two NBA franchises in the heart of the nation's high school recruiting hotbed, relevant?

But first, there's finishing this season. Can the return of Bennie re-energize a team that is still 16-4 even if no longer ranked and no more a member of the top five in the Pac-12 who look like they're headed for the NCAA Tournament in March. Can the Trojans keep Arizona State, Sunday's visitor to Galen, behind it in the Pac-12?

A home court loss to the Sun Devils before Wednesday's visit by high-flying UCLA to a sold-out Galen would be devastating.

And yeah, we know Trojan fans will care about that UCLA game. But how to get them to care about USC hoops and all the other games? You know, the question UCLA fans ask about football. 

 

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

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