USC emerged from the draft season a winner. Are Trojans a top-10 team?

While Bennie Boatwright was exploring the NBA draft, he worked out alone as he pondered his decision.

The rest of the team didn’t see him for a while. One day, someone sent out a text to the team’s group chat before a weight-training session, seeking a head count. Who was coming?

A few minutes later, phones buzzed with a message. It was Boatwright.

“I’ll be there,” he wrote.

Kurt Karis, a walk-on guard, was the first to respond: Does that mean you’re coming back?

So, Boatwright recalled, “I posted a picture of me and Kurt Karis dancing.” That’s a 20-year-old’s way of saying “yes.”

Soon, his teammates were pinging their own celebratory photos. Everyone in the texting thread knew what prize they’d just won. The previous week, Boatwright’s roommate, friend and frontcourt mate, Chimezie Metu, had announced he too would be returning for his junior season.

USC was coming off its most successful campaign in at least a decade, going 26-10 and winning two NCAA tournament games even though Boatwright missed half of the season. The photos were saying: You thought last season was fun? Wait until the next one.

"I don't see why we can't be a contender for the championship next year,” Metu said.

Boatwright mused, "I don't think we're missing anything.”

The deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft was Wednesday evening, and USC was a big winner. Boatwright and Metu returned. Guard Elijah Stewart decided to return too. Coach Andy Enfield said Wednesday that guard Shaqquan Aaron would also be back.

As the rest of the contenders in the Pac-12 and around the country reckon with their departures, USC can ask a question that hasn’t been relevant for years: Is USC a legitimate contender for the conference title? What about a Final Four?

"Right now, we're definitely a top-10 team in the country, on paper,” Metu said.

USC hasn’t been ranked that high in the preseason in 42 years. It hasn’t been ranked that high at any point in 25 years. But it has a legitimate chance to get there.

For a strong team to avoid significant roster turnover is rare. Of the 35 teams to win an NCAA tournament game last season, two will return all five starters: Wichita State and USC.

USC avoided the churn nearly altogether. The Trojans lost one scholarship player: forward Charles Buggs, who played sparingly. And USC adds a wave of newcomers, including Duke transfer Derryck Thornton.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s top three teams weathered significant losses. All three reloaded with at least one McDonald’s All-American, but Oregon lost its best four starters. UCLA also lost four starters. Arizona lost two, including its best player, Lauri Markkanen.

Beyond next season, the return of Metu and Boatwright could have lasting effects. The roster is now deep enough to be sustainable, a mix of depth and experience Enfield called “extremely important.”

“If you look around the country to these perennial top-25 programs, when players leave for the NBA, they graduate, there are other players ready to step in, and they continue to be good,” Enfield said.

But opportunities for what Boatwright called “a loaded team” don’t come often at USC. The Trojans’ best window might be next season.

Both Metu and Boatwright weighed that when making their choices. Both initially thought they were leaving.

“When I declared, I expected to go,” Boatwright said.

Over breakfast with his father, Boatwright decided that he would benefit from another year of seasoning.

Metu heard from NBA scouts and executives that he could be drafted anywhere from the late first round to the second round. He thought he could do better.

“I didn't want to be in a situation where I left and I found myself in the D-League,” he said.

All the while both Trojans said they thought about last year’s run, and the nagging thought that they could do better.

"I just kept going back and forth every day,” Metu said. “And then I just kind of settled on coming back because I wanted to win.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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