USC

After seasons of ineptitude, USC men's basketball is finally back in top 25

Katin Reinhardt knew his first seasons at USC would be rough.

Most everyone did, Reinhardt recalled recently at practice. Just maybe not this rough.

"I mean what did we win, three Pac-12 games last year?" Reinhardt said.

For the pollsters and fans who have recently taken notice of the high-octane USC basketball team, which cracked the Associated Press top 25 and the coaches poll on Monday, it might seem as if the Trojans came out of nowhere. For USC's players, who had to endure seasons of frustration and ineptitude, the climb is all the sweeter.

USC (15-3) came in at No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 25 in the coaches poll. After teetering on the verge of joining the top 25 last week, an emphatic 89-75 victory over UCLA on Wednesday offered USC a final shove.

It is the first time USC has been ranked since Nov. 17, 2008. That season's roster included future NBA players DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Nikola Vucevic.

The ranking, USC Coach Andy Enfield said, validates the team's early success.

"It's important for our program, so our players realize that they can compete at the level that they're at right now," Enfield said. "It doesn't mean that we'll be successful the rest of the season or into the future, but for the time being, it shows that we can compete."

Point guard Jordan McLaughlin said the ranking is "huge for this school because everybody's been wanting us to be good for so long."

The Trojans haven't finished above .500 since the 2010-11 season. For players such as Reinhardt, who starred at Mater Dei, and McLaughlin, who says he lost fewer than 10 games in four seasons at Etiwanda High, the transition was jarring.

"It was weird, really weird," Reinhardt said. "I only lost, like, five games my whole high school career. So coming from that to only winning three games in the whole conference, it's tough. You're not used to it."

Before transferring from Nevada Las Vegas in 2013, Reinhardt watched videos of Enfield's teams at Florida Gulf Coast. He envisioned what Enfield, recently hired at USC, would do with the right players, and he wanted in.

Enfield sold that vision from the start. When Enfield recruited McLaughlin, who would become Enfield's most prized recruit to date, he showed McLaughlin videos of Florida Gulf Coast's point guard.

"I just imagined myself in that point guard's shoes, running the team," McLaughlin said.

It was easy to pitch a vision. USC's staff landed players such as Elijah Stewart, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu with the same message. But fulfilling it took patience.

The season Reinhardt sat out after transferring, USC went 11-21.

The next season, McLaughlin's freshman year, USC barely improved, to 12-20. It was a new feeling.

"When you lose, in high school, you sit on the loss for days and days because you know you're going to come out and smack every team you play," Reinhardt said.

At USC, the misery from one loss would bleed into the next. Reinhardt called it "draining."

"You constantly lose, constantly lose, constantly lose," he said. "You want to scream or something. But you've got to come out and play another Wednesday-Saturday."

USC's regulars say they didn't lose faith. McLaughlin has said on multiple occasions he never had second thoughts, even as he endured surgeries on both his shoulders at the end of last season.

Why? Partially because USC had improved enough to play teams close. It lost eight games by five points or fewer. The team was young, and McLaughlin said he knew it had the talent to become much better.

However, that didn't make last season any less frustrating. The team would pull close, then still lose, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion. Point guard Julian Jacobs said the postgame locker room would turn into a "sulk session."

The fans didn't show up, either. USC's average attendance last season was 5,755, second worst in the Pac-12 Conference, ahead of only Washington State.

Recounting this, McLaughlin smirked, then answered politically.

"We had our strong core," he said.

This season, USC has impressive victories over Wichita State, Arizona and UCLA. At 4-1 in the conference, it is tied with Washington for first place.

The Trojans have come a long way. Thinking over his first two seasons with the program, Reinhardt started chuckling.

"I'm smiling now," he said, "because it was funny that's how it was."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 19, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "USC is finally back in top 25 - Trojans, ranked for first time since 2008, are No. 21 in AP poll, No. 25 in coaches poll." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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