Before USC was left to tiptoe along the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble, a last-minute tip-in from Nick Rakocevic lifted the Trojans past Louisiana State at Staples Center in December, giving them their first marquee victory of the season.
Two months later, as another nightmarish February nears its end, the Trojans are still waiting on a second.
They had their shot Thursday in Colorado, when the Pac-12 leaders spotted them a 14-point, first-half lead, only to come roaring back with a barrage of three-pointers in the second.
With 90 seconds left, USC trailed by one, when Elijah Weaver ran the wrong play out of a timeout. The next possession, Daniel Utomi caught a pass behind the arc, lost his handle, and was called for traveling.
Any hope slipped away in that frustrating sequence as USC lost 70-66 and squandered another opportunity to bolster its resume.
With just four games remaining, the next on Sunday at Utah, those opportunities are dwindling fast. Just one of those games features a Quadrant 1 opponent, according to the NCAA’s NET ranking formula.
USC, which ranks 40th, has had little trouble beating up on lesser opponents this season. It has just one loss outside of that top quadrant. But unless it can upset Arizona next Thursday, its December victory over LSU might wind up its sole Q1 win this season.
For a team firmly on the bubble, with losses in three of its last five games, that’s not exactly a convincing case to put before the selection committee.
The Trojans are currently 2-7 in Quadrant 1 opportunities this season, but even those two victories aren’t nearly as impressive as they once looked. LSU, which skated to nine straight wins to start its SEC slate, has lost four of its last five. USC’s win at Oregon State, which also qualifies as a Q1, could look vastly different too when the selection committee assesses credentials three weeks from now. The Beavers currently rank 75th in the NCAA’s NET rankings — right on the edge of that quadrant for road opponents — and still have three games left against the top half of the Pac-12.
For now, prognosticators continue to project USC safely into the field. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports has the Trojans as a No. 9 seed, while Joe Lunardi of ESPN lists them as an 11th seed, right on the edge of the tournament’s play-in game.
It’s impossible to know exactly how the committee might evaluate the Trojans’ uneven resume. But to suggest they’re safe from here would be short-sighted. With a resume so thin on marquee wins, USC can ill afford to drop even one game against the non-marquee opponents left on its schedule.
Two of those opponents, Arizona State and UCLA, just happen to be the hottest teams in the Pac-12. Both moved ahead of USC in the conference race over the last week, as Arizona State upended Oregon and UCLA upset Colorado.
As the Pac-12 race reaches its home stretch, making up ground from here won’t be easy. USC currently sits in sixth place but hasn’t helped itself in terms of tiebreakers. The Trojans are a combined 1-5 against teams ahead of them in the standings, leaving a serious uphill climb to earn one of four first-round byes in next month’s Pac-12 tournament.
With losses in five of its last seven games, Utah might seem like the perfect place to turn around a tough stretch of the Trojans’ season.
But the Utes have lost just twice on their home court this season and nearly upset USC at Galen Center in January. It took a late comeback for the Trojans to escape with an ugly 56-52 win.
“I have no doubt in my mind we can turn this around,” point guard Ethan Anderson said then.
But as March approaches, with four games remaining and a resume in need of boosting, the window for turning around a season heading in the wrong direction is closing fast.