For first time in a long time, USC is in NCAA tournament conversation

The words escaped Andy Enfield's mouth last week, almost by accident.

The USC coach was trying to explain how his team was approaching its game against UCLA, when something else slipped out.

"Of course our NCAA tournament chances —" he stopped himself. "We don't want to even talk about that yet because it's so early."

It marked the first time in a long time those two words, "NCAA tournament," have been uttered publicly by a USC player or coach.

Enfield is typically measured, downplaying the importance of individual wins and losses alike. Later he explained that he ended his tangent because he feels it is too early to think about the postseason. It can be a distraction, he said, that can lead to games like Friday's loss to a struggling Arizona State team, 74-67.

Still, USC (18-6, 7-4 Pac-12 Conference) will almost certainly be a tournament team, barring a significant collapse.

That puts the Trojans in very unfamiliar territory. As a head coach, Enfield has reached one NCAA tournament, at Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, and that was as an automatic bid. The team had to win its conference tournament to get in.

USC, meanwhile, hasn't reached the tournament since 2011. USC's freshmen weren't even in high school at that time.

So how does Enfield handle expectations?

"It's something we've never discussed, we won't discuss, until the appropriate time," Enfield said. "There's no guarantee we're going to make it."

It is true, a dreadful February and March could knock USC out.

"We don't have enough wins right now," Enfield said.

But the Trojans are close.

Last year, the worst record for an at-large tournament team belonged to Oklahoma State, which had just 18 wins at regular season's end. USC will play No. 17 Arizona on Sunday. A win would be its 19th.

USC NEXT UP

AT ARIZONA

When: Sunday, 5 p.m. PST.

Where: McKale Center, Tucson.

On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 830.

Update: For the first time in Pac-12 Conference play, USC (18-6, 7-4 Pac-12) failed to score 70 points in a 74-67 loss to Arizona State on Friday. The Trojans shot nearly 52% from the field, but made just two of 11 three-pointers and turned the ball over 17 times. The Trojans went to four overtimes in a win over Arizona in January. The Wildcats, who defeated UCLA on Friday, have won 51 of their last 52 games at home.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter: @zhelfand

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