As good as the Rose Bowl win was for the punctuation mark it put on the 2016 USC football season, as we're seeing now, the start it's giving to the 2017 season may be even more meaningful.
Which is why tonight's NCAA play-in game for USC basketball in Dayton (6:10, tru TV) against Providence for a second straight year matters so much. It could be the hump game -- or at least the start of the hump postseason at the end of Year 4 of the Andy Enfield Era in USC hoops. That's because the next two games in USC's bracket in Tulsa are hardly unwinnable against SMU, a smart, tough, well-coached team USC has already beaten, and a plateauing Baylor.
But that's what it will take. Do something for USC fans -- and this USC basketball program -- to remember this team by.
It can happen in Dayton. It happened to me, the Northern Kentucky hoops fan, who realized in the days before cable TV, every single one of Dayton's basketball games was televised. And we could just about get WHIO when you moved the antenna just right. Sure, from my house to UD Arena was barely as much a drive as it is from the USC campus to Riverside. But it was a special place for basketball.
For years, my alma mater couldn't handle the Fliers in the annual home-and-home series. And then they could. And you knew Xavier basketball had arrived.
And of course, the fact that Dayton has one of the great steakhouses in America, the Pine Club, rivalling St. Elmo's in Indianapolis, never hurts going there for basketball.
Dayton can be the right place for a basketball fan or program to be. That could not have been more clear when this UK basketball fan then headed up I-75 in 1975 to see if the Wildcats could stay on the floor with a Bobby Knight Indiana team in the Mideast Regional final after losing to the No. 1 Hoosiers 98-74 in Bloomington in a game where Knight had cuffed UK coach Joe B. Hall on the back of the head while Knight was arguing with an official in front of the UK bench, saying he was just playing with Joe B. That if he'd wanted to, Knight said he could have wasted him right there.
Now this Kentucky team was hardly chopped liver. Led by Kevin Grevey, they were No. 5 in the nation and went on to end Indiana's 34-game winning streak that day against a team led by Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson and Scott May, playing with his broken arm in a cast. That 92-90 UK win is considered one of the 10 best games in NCAA tourney history.
That IU team would go on to win the NCAA title the next year with a 36-0 season, the last recorded in NCAA Div. 1 history. UK should have beaten UCLA the next week in the championship game in San Diego. But John Wooden's announced retirement before the game and condemnation of Kentucky's "physical" style for the officials proved too much.
But this is where college basketball can be so special. Headed south on I-75, we got caught up in a long traffic line of Kentucky fans, who as it turned out, were following the team bus to Lexington. By the time it hit the Ohio River, there were thousands of the Big Blue Nation at the bridge to greet them 90 miles from campus.
Not that that's possible here. But a start might be. That's where the NCAA can matters.
Just a couple of years later, as Xavier SID, I was working at Dayton for an NIT game against a newcomer Georgetown team that had mostly just been a good Jesuit academic school in D.C. But as the team coordinator for Georgetown, I got to spend time with a John Thompson who had big plans for his program. And like him or not, like how he did it or not, it was obvious this was a program on its way. As that win that day over a good Dayton team in those years of 48-team NCAA tourneys, meant something.
The hope for me was that Xavier could follow that model, which it did just a couple of years later.
Speaking of a model, the very next year working for NBC as an NCAA bench coordinator, my first duty was to get Kentucky-opponent Michigan State lined up for Bryant Gumbel's regional call back in the days when TV focused on the pre-game introductions of the five starters. In the MSU lockerroom earlier, I can still remember my marching orders: "Magic, you go last," for the freshman who would lead the Spartans to an NCAA title a year later over Larry Bird's Indiana State team.
It might have been the last time Magic was last.
But then there was this. In 1984 as a sports columnist, I headed to Dayton for the then play-in games because my cousin was the volunteer SID for Alcorn State, where her husband taught. They were the second game after Morehead State-North Carolina A&T game in a battle of four No. 12 seeds.
The first game was hardly memorable and then it happened. One of the officials was over at the TV monitor, I think it my have been Tim Higgins out of the Big East, and like the rest of us, the officials had missed the last play. "Do you have replay on it?" he was asking the broadcasters. Turns out they did. "Can I see it?" he asked. He could. Now remember, there was no rule allowing Instant Replay in college basketball. He just did it. It was the only way to know what happened on that play that is lost forever to history.
And so he made the call based on what he saw on TV. And by the next season, college basketball was using it. Some times things that happen in Dayton matter.
Which is why USC fans hope that one of two USC precedents here hold. The first came in 2011 when USC, with Kevin O'Neill coaching the last of Tim Floyd's guys, got in on the heels of Kevin's Pac-12 tourney hotel dustup/fist-fight with an Arizona fan. And despite having an NBA stud like Nikola Vucevic in that lineup, the O'neill-offensively-challenged Trojans scored just 46 points in the first-ever "First Four" session as they started calling the play-in games in Dayton that year. And helped send VCU all the way to the Final Four.
What happens here sometimes matters more than just in Dayton.
Which is why USC fans have to hope that at least one part of the Trojans' last appearance at UD Arena holds. It happened when Andy's first USC team in 2014 beat a very good Dayton team on the road in December on the way to a 9-4 start. That Dayton team would finish 27-9 and make it to the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
But that USC team inexplicably finished with just three more wins in the final 20 games, ending up 11-21.
So now the question: Can USC win here again -- and make it just the start to a big finish? It's happened before in Dayton.