It’s presumably no longer the season for FBI probes, international shoplifting scandals and high-profile defections. The nonconference portion of the schedule has mercifully ended for UCLA and USC.
Bruins forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley returned to practice this week just in time for Pac-12 Conference play, though they will be in street clothes for home games and remain in Westwood whenever their teammates travel. The freshmen were recently suspended for the season after they were caught shoplifting during the team’s visit to China last month.
LiAngelo Ball, who until recently also was a UCLA freshman, is scheduled to report to his new professional team in Lithuania next week after withdrawing from school over his family’s impatience with his indefinite suspension for shoplifiting.
There’s less certainty surrounding Trojans guard De’Anthony Melton, who remains sidelined indefinitely while school officials continue to investigate whether he was involved in a corruption and bribery case that led to a federal indictment of assistant coach Tony Bland, who USC placed on leave. USC declared Melton ineligible last week.
USC coach Andy Enfield was curt when asked how the investigation had impacted his team’s play heading into its Pac-12 opener against Washington on Friday at the Galen Center.
“Not at all,” Enfield said during a conference call with reporters.
The on-court trajectory of the Trojans and Bruins seems pointed upward now, after both teams fell out of the national rankings. USC (9-4) is coming off a three-wins-in-four-days stretch that ended with a 77-72 triumph over New Mexico State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic.
The Trojans recently got star forward Bennie Boatwright and sophomore guard Jonah Mathews back from the foot and ankle injuries that had sidelined them for a few games. Enfield said the team hoped that sophomore guard Derryck Thornton, a transfer from Duke, could soon return from the shoulder injury that has forced him to miss a month.
“We only had two players out for the last game instead of three and four like we’ve had the previous games, so we’re slowly getting healthier,” Enfield said. “I guess the biggest improvement we’ve seen is we’re slowly getting most of our rotation players back in the lineup; however we’re still missing some key guys.”
UCLA (9-3) jolted its NCAA tournament hopes back to life last week with an 83-75 victory over then-No. 7 Kentucky. The triumph was all the more important considering the Bruins will play Arizona State (12-0) and Arizona (10-3), which possess the top RPI figures in the Pac-12, only once each because of the conference’s unbalanced schedule.
“Getting that top-10 win, I think that’s huge going into conference play knowing that we have that,” said UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose team’s Pac-12 opener comes against Washington State on Friday at Pauley Pavilion.
The Cougars (8-4) are among the conference’s surprises after beating St. Mary’s and San Diego State last month on the way to the Wooden Legacy championship. Washington (10-3) has defeated then-No. 2 Kansas while already exceeding last season’s victory total.
Arizona, the conference favorite in the preseason media poll, has recently resembled the team that was expected after bottoming out in the Bahamas last month with three consecutive losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Like the Trojans, the Wildcats are dealing with the fallout from the FBI probe that resulted in criminal charges, including conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud, against Arizona assistant Emanuel Richardson.
There’s more of a feel-good story across the desert in Tempe, where third-ranked Arizona State has snaked its way into the national spotlight while matching the highest ranking in school history. The Sun Devils beat Kansas and are among only three remaining unbeaten teams in Division I.
UCLA and USC are just happy the focus has shifted back to basketball after a few trying months.
Bruins center Thomas Welsh said having Hill and Riley back at practice allows for a deeper rotation of big men while providing additional rest. The team’s rotation has been whittled from 11 to eight all season as a result of the suspended players’ absences.
“It really dramatically changed kind of your concept of how you were going to do things offensively and defensively,” Alford said. “I know I’m very pleased going into the conference season where we’re at. I really like what this team has done. They’ve worked, they’ve grown, they’ve gotten better, they’ve come closer together. We’re a much better team now than what we were in China.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch