Are these Trojans ready for limelight?

first_imgWhile USC basketball is in the midst of its best season in recent memory, one that even saw them ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008, the end of this campaign still hangs in the balance.What happened almost immediately after the Trojans received a coveted spot in the rankings? They lost consecutive road games to Oregon and Oregon State last weekend and subsequently fell out of the Top 25. That’s not to say the Ducks and Beavers aren’t quality opponents — Oregon is ranked No. 23 and Oregon State was 9-3 at home entering last Sunday’s game — but these were winnable games for the Men of Troy that would have helped solidify their place among the Pac-12 elites.Instead, the Trojans found themselves in the middle of the pack in a very tight conference, with the top six teams separated by just one game and Cal and UCLA — both underperforming this season — lurking.Rather than being the underdog — as they have often been in conference games — USC served as the Goliath in both games last weekend. “Oregon Men’s Basketball upsets No. 21 USC Trojans 89-81” was the headline in the Daily Emerald last Thursday. On Sunday, The Oregonian called the Beavers’ 85-70 win over the Trojans “their signature win of the season.”With strong performance comes higher expectations, and the Trojans last weekend found themselves in a position they were not accustomed to: being the hunted instead of the hunter, having the target on their backs instead of holding the bow and arrow. Typically, “upsets” and “signature win” are words used to describe USC’s victories over conference opponents — not the other way around. It serves as a reminder as to how quickly times have change for the Trojans. Remember, this team had a 23-41 overall and 5-31 conference record over the last two seasons and it could only pride itself on a few signature wins each season.Now, the Men of Troy have undoubtedly moved beyond that point and are focusing on bigger and brighter goals — finishing among the top in the Pac-12, earning a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, perhaps even making some noise in March Madness. But in order to do so, it is paramount that they end up on the right side of the crossroads they currently sit at.The rest of the season can go one of two ways. Either the Trojans learn from their mistakes in Oregon and keep knocking off quality conference opponents or they relapse into the team we’re all too familiar with: the young and inexperienced group that fails to finish games and can’t buy a conference win.Junior guard Julian Jacobs, who has been through many trials and tribulations in his career, knows that fast-paced offense and flashy dunks that have led some to refer to the team as “Slam City” are exciting, but believes the “defense wins championships” maxim rings true. USC struggled defensively in last weekend’s losses to the Oregon schools.“Defense has to be our top priority,” Jacobs said. “If we let our offense dictate our defense, then this team isn’t going to be very good. But if we go out and guard and play defense like we know we can, we’re just as good as anyone.”Establishing an identity as a defense-oriented team will demonstrate maturity and growth for a group that has finally grasped tangible success after years of having only hope and potential. Whether that success is short-lived or long-term remains to be seen.A comfortable victory over Washington State Thursday night is a good start toward the latter, though a win over a last-place Cougars squad coming in on a five-game losing streak is less impressive than it would have seemed before the season.The bigger test will come on Saturday in a matinee at the Galen Center against Washington, which entered Thursday’s game against UCLA tied for first with Oregon with a conference record of 5-2. Remember, the Trojans blew a 22-point second half lead against the Huskies in Seattle earlier this month and cannot have a repeat occurrence at home tomorrow.“Against these Washington teams, we definitely want to come out and make a statement. We feel it’s more than a must-win,” Jacobs said prior to the win over the Cougars. “We want to come out and have a pretty convincing statement on our home court.”One down, many more to go. The Men of Troy have already shattered expectations with their meteoric rise from bottom-feeder to relevance, but in order to truly be taken seriously as strong basketball program on the rise in a football-dominant school, they must finish off the latter half of the season the same way they started it.Eric He is a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Fridays.last_img

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