The pattern was all too familiar by now, one month into conference play. The early shooting slump. The missed layups. The stagnant ball movement. The quiet start for the star freshman.
For USC, the early game issues had become almost routine. Its offense would stall early, and its defense would hold just long enough. Just when it mattered the most, the Trojans would remember all the offensive talent they’d accumulated, turn it on, and just barely speed past their opponent.
It was enough against Utah two days earlier, Stanford two weeks ago, and Louisiana State a month before that. It was enough to bring USC to the precipice of a Pac-12 conference lead, at the start of the season’s final stretch.
But after tiptoeing on a tightrope offensively for much of the past two months, USC stumbled with a chance to seize conference control, falling flat on its face in a 78-57 defeat to Colorado on Saturday.
And this time, with a chance to seize control of the Pac-12, things really fell apart.
It began, as it often has this season, with an ice-cold start. After opening two for 12 from the field against Colorado, the Trojans actually came out and hit their first two shots, taking a 6-0 lead. For a brief moment, it seemed as if Saturday might be the night they put their offensive issues behind them.
Then, the Trojans scored only 18 points and shot less than 30% the rest of the half. They clanked open three-pointers. They missed easy lay-ins. They couldn’t find freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who again was fronted in the post by an opposing defense.
“When we’re bad offensively,” coach Andy Enfield said, “we’re really bad.”
Okongwu finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds in perhaps the quietest double-double any Pac-12 player has had this season. He made only three of eight shots and still somehow was one of the Trojans’ most productive players on offense.
Freshman Isaiah Mobley wound up as USC’s leading scorer for the first time this season, scoring 12 on five-for-eight shooting.
Still, even as its offense continued to drag it down, USC (17-5, 6-3 Pac-12) was down by only nine when Jonah Mathews made a three-pointer just before the half. It was a scenario not so unfamiliar from the usual blueprint for a team that has come back before.
“We’re a second-half team,” Mobley said. “We’ve been down nine before or worse. We have full confidence that we could come back.”
Except, this time, the comeback never came. This time, the Trojans scored just four points in the first 12 minutes of the second half, their slump deepening with every miss.
This time, they threw their hands up in frustration. This time, the team that has staked its reputation on comebacks came apart.
One scoreless run followed another, as USC fell deeper and deeper into a slump. Before long, its defense threw in the towel too. Colorado (17-5, 6-3) took advantage, hitting 62.5% of its second-half shots and 51.9% overall.
The Trojans crawled across the finish line from there, practically willing the buzzer to sound and their most miserable home game of the season to end.
It wasn’t the start to February that USC hoped for, but the month hasn’t exactly been kind to the Trojans under Enfield. USC fell to 14-32 in the penultimate month of the college basketball calendar, and with eight more games remaining this month, it will need to iron out its issues soon if it hopes to avoid a similar fate.
The month ahead didn’t feel so bleak in the first few minutes Saturday, when Daniel Utomi hit a three to open the scoring. On the next play, Okongwu scored and drew a foul. With the Trojans leading by six, with a chance to make a statement in the Pac-12, things were looking up.
Then it all went downhill.