When Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin committed to USC four years ago, the Trojans were closer to the bottom 10 in college basketball than the top 10. The team had won 11 games the season before they arrived. The program was in a dark place.
So a few days before the pair began their senior seasons — with USC now ranked No. 10 in the preseason Associated Press poll for the first time since 1974, with a team many expect to compete for the Pac-12 Conference title and with legitimate Final Four dreams — a reporter asked Stewart: Could he possibly have envisioned all of this?
Stewart leaned in, grabbed the reporter’s recorder and put it next to his mouth.
“Duhhh!” he said. “That's why we came here, man. Everyone made fun of us. ‘Aw, you had all these other schools. Why did you go there?’ People were making fun of me saying, ‘Loser, going to USC. You're going to lose there too.’
“Now, I'm not gonna throw names out there, but we had some people trying to transfer here that were saying I was crazy for coming here."
Stewart, McLaughlin and the teammates that followed them to USC find themselves on the cusp of fulfilling an unlikely vision that began four years ago. USC finally has experience. USC finally has more talent than it can jam onto the floor. Its biggest basketball-related question this season is a nice one: Is there enough playing time and scoring to keep everyone happy?
The specter of an FBI investigation tempers the start of an otherwise giddy season. A federal grand jury indicted assistant coach Tony Bland on corruption and bribery charges Tuesday and alleged that he facilitated cash payments to relatives of one current USC player and one recruit.
Coach Andy Enfield did not say if every player would be available or eligible to play when USC opens the season against Cal State Fullerton on Friday
"We have everyone practicing right now,” he said earlier this week.
Asked what that meant for the game, he said, "I can't comment on anything regarding what you're talking about.”
USC has the depth to weather roster disruption. USC lost just one scholarship player from last season. Forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright spurned the NBA draft to return. Both thought an extra year would help their NBA stock, and they knew their return could lift USC to rarefied heights.
"I thought that we had a chance to be really good this year and a chance to do something special," Metu said.
The pair makes a formidable frontcourt. Metu provides rim protection and athleticism. Boatwright brings a mismatch-creating combination of size and skill.
USC’s backcourt may be even more loaded. There is Stewart, a spring-footed three-point shooter. There are Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton, who enjoyed breakout freshmen seasons, particularly on defense. USC will add two freshmen, Charles O’Bannon Jr. and Jordan Usher, who, in past USC seasons, might have played major minutes early.
And USC acquires the services of point guard Derryck Thornton, who started as a freshman for Duke two seasons ago before transferring.
It will be up to McLaughlin to keep everyone involved. Under Enfield, USC has usually enjoyed balanced scoring. This season, USC may have too many weapons to satisfy everyone. For instance, the role of Shaqquan Aaron, a streaky wing who saw his playing time decline last season, will be a question early.
McLaughlin said he and Thornton will share point guard duties much as he and Julian Jacobs did two seasons ago. McLaughlin said he knew of one way to quell dissension over usage.
"Just make sure we're winning,” he said. “If we're winning, it doesn't matter about stats."
Stewart added that shooters could have the luxury, and the obligation, to be selective.
"If you shoot, you better make it,” he said. “We're playing percentages this year."
The Trojans find themselves in an unfamiliar position. They are expected to compete for a Pac-12 championship, battling Arizona and UCLA. In past seasons, USC did not have to contend with expectations. Players used slights from pollsters and pundits as fuel.
Last winter, Stewart described USC as “the Harry Potter of the Pac-12,” crammed and forgotten under a metaphorical staircase, just like the fictional wizard.
Recently, he said the description still fit. Arizona, he said, was like the series’ villain, Voldemort, because “people fear Voldemort, people always respect Arizona.” USC, he said, still follows the hero’s arc.