Chimezie Metu felt frustrated. Jordan McLaughlin said a spark was lacking.
The USC basketball team had just lost its Pac-12 Conference opener against Washington, its record falling to 9-5, and the Trojans bore little resemblance to a team picked among the nation’s top 10 at the start of the season.
“We were losing too many games with the kind of talent that we had,” Metu said.
Said McLaughlin: “It just started with our energy.”
The displeasure reached the coaches’ offices and boiled over after the loss to the Huskies. A team meeting was called.
“Everybody just came out with everything they had to say,” Metu said. “We went around the room and guys said what they felt.”
Said McLaughlin: “We talked about what we needed to fix.”
Coach Andy Enfield, often a man of few words, said an open conversation was necessary to move forward.
“I think the players believe that was a constructive meeting,” Enfield said.
Their performance since indicates it was a success.
The Trojans earned victories over Washington State and California, then fell to Stanford on a 55-foot buzzer beater before going on a six-game run — their longest winning streak during conference play since 1992.
The streak included a victory over Utah for the first time since 2013 and a win over Oregon for the first time in 15 tries.
The Trojans (17-7, 8-3 in Pac-12 play) have won eight of their last 10 games and are in second place in the conference standings behind No. 13 Arizona.
The turnaround happened despite constant distractions.
USC announced that sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton, who started 25 games last season, would be held out for the season because of a possible link to the FBI’s college basketball bribery case. The school also fired associate head coach Tony Bland, who had been placed on administrative leave before the season following his arrest in the bribery and corruption probe.
“We just keep pushing forward,” said senior guard Elijah Stewart, who averages 11.4 points per game.
Defense, which turned into the reoccurring theme of the team meeting, has become the key to USC’s success and is among the best in the Pac-12.
“We’re going out there, playing with a lot of energy and active hands,” said McLaughlin, who averages 12.3. points, 7.7 assists and 2.0 steals. “Trying to get deflections and trying to get offense out of the defense.”
After Washington shot 67.3%, the Trojans have held opponents to 46% shooting.
USC is averaging a conference-high eight steals and also has the best assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging 17.4 to 9.5.
“In order to really get out and run and have all the dunks and alley-oops and stuff, we have to get stops,” said Metu, who averages 15.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Before a loss at UCLA last Saturday, McLaughlin said the Trojans were playing their best basketball in his four seasons with the team.
“The way we’re playing right now is the way we should have been playing at the beginning of the season,” McLaughlin said. “We made some adjustments like everybody should in the middle of the season and we’re starting to jell now.”
But the Trojans still sit outside the top 25, a ranking they said they’re unconcerned about as their schedule gets tougher and March approaches.
“That number in front of the school doesn’t give you any protection from anybody,” Metu said. “Anybody can beat anybody.”
This week, USC will travel to the desert to face Arizona State (17-6, 5-6) on Thursday and Arizona (19-5, 9-2) on Saturday.
USC has lost five consecutive games at ASU’s Wells Fargo Arena and has not won at Arizona’s McKale Center since 2008 — a victory vacated because of NCAA sanctions.
Despite a disappointing defensive performance at UCLA — the Bruins’ 82 points were the most allowed by the Trojans since that loss to Washington — McLaughlin expressed confidence that the team could regroup and reclaim its defensive groove.
“We’re a confident team,” McLaughlin said. “When we step out there we feel like we can beat any team no matter how much we’re down throughout a game.
“We always play until there are zero seconds on the clock, no matter what the score is, so we keep fighting until the end.”