Last week, virtually all projections listed USC as comfortably joining the NCAA tournament field, heading toward a drama-free finish. Most figured USC would be sitting pretty as it entered the final week of the regular season.
But there was USC on Tuesday at the Galen Center, finishing an abnormally long practice. As it was ending, Coach Andy Enfield said his team had a lot to go over after a collapse in the final four minutes against Arizona State on Sunday.
“Hey, I don't feel sorry for our team,” Enfield said. “I don’t feel sorry for our program. We just didn’t get it done.”
If the Trojans were to feel sorry about anything, it would be what has become of their NCAA tournament chances. The loss at Arizona State jolted USC’s final homestand — which begins Wednesday with Washington State — transforming it from a gentle finish to a crucial series.
“It affected them quite a bit,” said Shelby Mast, who runs the website Bracket W.A.G. and works as USA Today’s bracketologist. “They better not lose.”
USC is still in position to enter the field. Of 123 bracket projections listed by the bracketology aggregator Bracket Matrix, 119 kept the Trojans in. Some, like CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, still list USC as secure, at a No. 9 seed.
Mast was among the most bearish. USC was the last team in his field.
That uncertainty means the Trojans (21-8, 8-8 in the Pac-12 Conference) cannot afford a loss at home to Washington State (13-15, 6-10) or Washington (9-19, 2-14). To feel comfortable, they also could use a win in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. Barring two Utah losses at home, USC will finish sixth in the conference, which would set it on a course for third-place UCLA in the tournament’s second round for the third straight season.
“We've all been playing basketball for a little while. We know the ins and outs, the politics behind everything,” shooting guard Elijah Stewart said. “We just know if you have a certain amount of wins, you don't have to be concerned about the bubble. If we keep going and make strong strides in the Pac-12 tournament, I feel like we should be fine.”
The Trojans’ biggest issue is the middle tier of their schedule, which isn’t very meaty: The Pac-12 has some very good teams at the top, such as UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, and USC is the only team that has played all three twice. The Pac-12 has some very beatable teams at the bottom. The middle, however, is hollow, and a scheduling quirk meant USC played the three middle-of-the-road teams — Utah, California and Colorado — just once.
The effect is a boosted win total for USC, but fewer chances for attainable quality victories.
So USC is left with a thin top to its resume, both good and bad. USC’s Ratings Percentage Index ranking, No. 39, compares well, and the Trojans have only one sub-100 loss. But it also has only two top-50 wins, albeit strong ones against UCLA and Southern Methodist. Most other bubble teams have more triumphs, and more baggage.
Enfield argued USC’s schedule was better than perceived.
“If you look at our schedule, we had the toughest schedule in the Pac-12 this year with the teams that we played twice and the mountain road trip,” Enfield said.
Enfield said he wasn’t sure how many wins USC would need for a stress-free selection Sunday.
“That decision is not up to us or me,” he said. “I really have no idea. I think a lot depends on teams around the country. Our RPI is high, we have a good RPI. UCLA’s ranked third [in the Associated Press top 25], we beat them. SMU’s ranked 14th, we beat them. So we have some really good wins."
Some teams used USC’s stumble to leap over the Trojans. But there aren’t many capable of boosting their resumes in the final two weeks to reach the Trojans’. USC is one of few teams on the bubble with a single-digit loss total. It was one of few with 20 wins or more.
This season’s bubble, Mast said, is forgiving.
“Since the field expanded to 68, we’ve always had weak bubbles,” he said. “But this year’s is, I would say, historically weak.”
USC VS. WASHINGTON STATE
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 710.
Update: Forward Chimezie Metu dominated USC’s first game against Washington State, with 29 points and eight rebounds. He missed just two shots. … The Cougars are no longer the Pac-12's basement dweller, but they have sputtered for most of the conference season. Two wins in a row, over Arizona State and Washington, snapped a five-game losing streak. Josh Hawkinson is a bright spot, averaging a double-double with 15.5 points and 10.1 rebounds.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand