USC players shuffled in a procession down a tunnel at the BOK Center on Sunday evening, until the only player remaining on the court was Bennie Boatwright. Around him, Baylor’s players snapped photos and celebrated their win in the NCAA tournament second-round game that ended USC’s season.
Boatwright didn’t seem to notice. He walked to mid-court, knelt and lingered. Then he looked up, lifted an index finger to the rafters and jogged off.
Now, teammates are waiting to find out: Will it be the last time he appears on a college court?
USC has completed four seasons under Coach Andy Enfield, and its record has improved in each. This season, the Trojans won a program-record 26 games, including two in the NCAA tournament, and came within five points of reaching a regional semifinal.
"Anytime you lose your last game of the season, especially the NCAA tournament, it's always a devastating loss,” Enfield said late Tuesday night. “But if you look at the big picture, the whole season, we're just ecstatic with our players.”
The question is, can the Trojans transform from being a good power-conference program to a serious title contender?
USC is positioned to make the leap. The Trojans had only one senior, reserve forward Charles Buggs.
"I think we showed everybody that we can compete with the best of the best,” forward Chimezie Metu said. “Now it's just a matter of everybody going back and getting better and coming back next year and working even harder and just trying to get to a national championship game."
The most pressing question is whether Metu and Boatwright, both sophomores this season, will be part of that push. Each is considering declaring their eligibility for the NBA draft, a choice they must make by April 23. If they do declare, they have until June 12 to withdraw their names from consideration.
A year ago, Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic shocked teammates and coaches by leaving. Ultimately, neither was drafted.
Metu and Boatwright are in a different position. Metu was ranked No. 42 among DraftExpress.com's top 100 prospects. Boatwright, who missed the middle of the season with a knee injury, was unranked, but he fits the NBA mold — a 6-foot-10 three-point sharpshooter.
The draft is tempting to Boatwright, who looked down and rubbed his palms together when the topic arose on Sunday. He is a basketball junkie. While injured early in the season, he stayed up late into the night swapping links of NBA highlights with a friend. He watched videos of Kobe Bryant nightly. A draft decision, he said, would not immediately be forthcoming.
"I'm not worried about that right now,” Boatwright said. “This was just a tough one. I'm not worried about that. I'll get back in the gym in about a couple weeks and we'll see what happens."
Metu also offered little insight into his plans.
"I'm not thinking about that right now,” he said.
Enfield was careful not to offer an explicit recommendation. He said his coaching staff would seek the best interest of each player, even if that meant the NBA.
“Or, he continued, “if it means coming back to school … and improving your opportunity to have guaranteed money or to be a higher pick, to be more NBA-ready.”
This year’s draft class is deeper than it has been in years. At one point, Enfield implied that a junior season could help both players’ draft stock. He pointed to Johnathan Motley, Baylor’s junior forward, who he said “wasn't ready” as a sophomore. Motley is expected to be a first-round selection this year.
“We do have some guys on our team that will play in the NBA,” Enfield said. “So it's just a matter of, OK, when will that be?"
The return of both is tantalizing. USC’s entire backcourt could return and should be flush with new additions. USC signed Jordan Usher, a versatile 6-foot-7 wing, and has a verbal commitment from Charles O'Bannon Jr., an explosive scorer who is the son of the former UCLA star.
Also, Derryck Thornton, who started 20 games at point guard for Duke as a freshman before transferring to USC, will be eligible next season.
"It's even better for us,” point guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “We add experience and a good guard in Derryk. It's still a two-guard system."
The biggest concern may be playing time. For example, Shaqquan Aaron, typically the first or second reserve off the bench, saw his playing dip below eight minutes per game in the NCAA tournament.
The roster’s depth would allow USC to compensate for a Boatwright departure by using a small lineup. If Metu leaves, USC’s season may hinge on the development of forward Nick Rakocevic. USC will need him to undergo the same offseason alchemy as Metu, who became the Pac-12 Conference’s most improved player.
"I already told him, I'm like, 'Man. I'm doing it. I want to make the leap you did,'” Rakocevic said.
His competition in the post consists of unknowns: Harrison Henderson, who played scant minutes as a freshman, and recruit Victor Uyaelunmo, a 6-foot-11 center signee from Miami.
Teammates said they wouldn’t lobby Metu or Boatwright to stay. But they are energized by the prospect. The next step for the program, McLaughlin said, is winning the Pac-12 and venturing deep in the NCAA tournament.
“We'll be right up there, a powerful team,” he said.
But he’d begun his assessment with an important clause.
"If everybody comes back,” he said.