The downside of pulling off an NCAA tournament upset, USC’s players have learned, is that you aggravate some who consider themselves friends.
A day after 11th-seeded USC’s last-minute win over No. 6 Southern Methodist, guard Jonah Mathews swiped to a text message sent by a high school friend.
You messed up my bracket, the text said — using more colorful language.
One text later: “congrats tho!”
The messages to USC players came from friends from classes, friends from high school, lifelong buddies, usually with an aside: By the way, I picked SMU.
“My homies were like, ‘Wow, you messed up my whole bracket,’ ” Mathews said. “I was sitting there like, ‘Wow, you’re my homie saying that?’ ”
Point guard Jordan McLaughlin said he was reconsidering some relationships. One purportedly close friend told forward Nick Rakocevic about his busted bracket. Rakocevic’s response? “I was like, ‘Hey man, I told you so.’ ”
In an NCAA tournament first round devoid of major turmoil, USC (26-9) has emerged as an unlikely “Cinderella” — as much as a power-conference program with vast resources, solid recruiting and a coach plucked from an actual Cinderella can be considered an underdog. A win over No. 3 Baylor (26-7) on Sunday would cement the Trojans’ status and send them to the second week of the tournament for the first time since 2007.
Trojans point guard Jordan McLaughlin drives down the lane against Mustangs defenders Jarrey Foster (10), Sterling Brown (3) and Shake Milton during the second half.(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
Trojans forward Chimezie Metu reacts after scoring against the Mustangs during the second half.(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
SMU forward Semi Ojeleye drives to the basket against USC during the second half.(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
Trojans guard Elijah Stewart attempts a reverse layup against guard Shake Milton during the first half.(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
SMU forward Semi Ojeleye has his drive cut off by USC big men Chimezie Metu, left, and Nick Rakocevic (31) during the first half.(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
SMU guard Jarrey Foster attempts a floating jump shot in the lane during the first half.(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
Southern Methodist guard Sterling Brown has his shot blocked by USC forwards Chimezie Metu (4) and Charles Buggs (1) during the first half.(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
Trojans forward Nick Rakocevic tries to cut off a drive by Mustangs guard Sterling Brown during the first half.(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
Of the six upsets in the first round, three — Wichita State, Middle Tennessee and Rhode Island — were actually favored in Las Vegas. A fourth, Michigan State, was hardly an upset, a No. 9 seed over No. 8 Miami.
USC’s was among the only true upsets. Among the 18.8 million brackets on ESPN, the Trojans were the least popular winner.
“Eighty-two percent didn’t pick us,” forward Bennie Boatwright said. He thought a moment. “Some of them have to be my friends.”
Yet the Trojans have captivated audiences with the style USC had sought when it hired Coach Andy Enfield. The Trojans have run the floor with raw athletes. They have displayed big personalities who played starring roles in both wins.
But mostly, it has been the comebacks.
No team in the nation has more double-digit comebacks: 13, exactly half of USC’s win total. Enfield said on Saturday that USC’s streakiness amazes him.
“We’re bad enough to get behind,” he said. “And good enough to come back.”
For much of the season, the coaching staff screamed at drowsy players at halftime. They did so Wednesday against Providence, when USC trailed by as many as 17. But by SMU, they’d decided to save their breath.
“Now, at halftime the other night, we said, ‘Hey, this is great, we’re only down eight!’ ” Enfield said. He continued: “That was our halftime speech, ‘Hey, this is awesome!’ ”
In the locker room on Saturday, Boatwright read his phone, looked up at Mathews and said, “They’re calling us the ‘Comeback Kids.’ ”
“I’d rather the ‘Comeback Kids’ than ‘Y’all Not Making it,’ ” he said.
Players aren’t sure why they were selected less than any other team.
“It might have been the Post Man,” suggested Elijah Stewart, using his nickname for Ken Pomeroy, the eminent statistician whose metrics haven’t favored USC.
Many players are aggravated that some perceive them as a novelty or a fluke.
“What 26-win team has ever been a Cinderella?” forward Chimezie Metu said. “We’re just as good as both the teams we played. We already beat SMU one time, and we were still coming into the game as underdogs.”
Stewart’s eyes bulged when it was suggested that USC had upset SMU.
“That’s not an upset, though. I’m really confused at that. So we were supposed to lose?” he said. “I’m not understanding that. Did the word change? Is it a new definition? I don’t know. I didn’t think we were supposed to lose.”
In Baylor, USC has found a kindred spirit, a team light on losses, heavy on length and athleticism that has felt slighted since October.
On Saturday, in a corner of Baylor’s locker room, lounging atop a table, sat Zach Amundson, a team manager from Austin, Texas, studying mathematics. He wore a Baylor shirt that said “#WSS.”
“We still suck,” he said.
Senior forward Ishmail Wainright explained that Baylor didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll. Then the Bears reeled off early wins against Oregon, Virginia Commonwealth, Michigan State and Louisville. Afterward, Wainright told anyone who’d listen that they should play as if they were still bad. Finally, someone made up T-shirts.
“That’s still our mind-set,” Wainright said.
So, too, in the opposing locker room. What rankles USC’s players most of all is that they don’t believe they’ve played all that well yet. Baylor players spoke glowingly of USC’s three-point ability, but the Trojans have made only 32% this tournament, below their average. Their comebacks, they say, signal they haven’t yet strung together two good halves.
Stewart said he has learned to worry more about playing a full 40 minutes than about perception.
“I know Cinderella got married at the end, I think. Good for her,” Stewart said. “But we’re just trying to play basketball.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand