Ailing USC looks to get better on and off the court
At the end of a miserable weekend, Nick Rakocevic stuffed his 6-foot-10 frame into his seat on a late Sunday flight out of Salt Lake City, closed his eyes, and thought of how badly he wanted to be home.
USC’s senior forward had spent most of his final Pac-12 trip vomiting. The flu-like virus he’d contracted in Colorado hit him like a freight train in Utah, sapping all his energy.
Unable to keep any food down, Rakocevic lost 16 pounds in three days. Still, on Sunday, he emerged from his hotel room for the first time, determined to start against Utah. He played the first two minutes in the eventual loss, before realizing he could barely stand.
On that flight, with the Trojans’ NCAA tournament hopes in flux, it seemed the entire team shared in his misery. Emotionally and physically drained, the Trojans stewed over the two losses and the damage that was done. No one suffered worse than Jonah Mathews, the senior guard and Rakocevic’s road roommate, whose flu symptoms struck mid-air and without warning.
USC tries to rally from a 15-point deficit but falls short in a 79-65 loss to Utah that severely hampers their aspirations of making the NCAA tournament.
“It was like, dude, we’ve taken a beating. Can we just go home?” Rakocevic recalled thinking. “We just needed to get home. It felt like everything will be better there.”
USC won’t need to leave home again during the final stretch of the regular season. But with only three games remaining — all of them against Pac-12 Conference contenders — it’s fair to wonder if a home remedy will be enough to turn the Trojans around.
Coach Andy Enfield would prefer to keep their focus solely on the game at hand. But after losing five of seven games, Rakocevic acknowledges that the team’s postseason fate has been a constant topic of conversation among players, only two of whom have participated in the NCAA tournament.
“They know what’s at stake,” Enfield said. “We’re still in good position. We just have to win some home games. That’s the bottom line. Just win as many as we can down the stretch.”
The Trojans (19-9 overall, 8-7 Pac-12) may need to win all three games to convince the selection committee, beginning Thursday against Arizona (19-8, 9-5) at Galen Center. It may be their final shot at a Quadrant 1 victory. USC has two victories in nine such opportunities this season.
A few of those opportunities, Enfield said, slipped just through the Trojans’ fingertips.
“We’ve had four close road games to the teams ahead of us in the Pac-12,” he said. “A double-overtime loss at Oregon. Arizona was a one-possession game with five seconds. Arizona State we lost at the buzzer, and Colorado, we had a chance to tie as well. If you look at those four road losses, we played hard, competitively. But we just didn’t have enough to win a close game.”
They won’t get any sympathy from the selection committee, not even with their ailing seniors unlikely to be at full strength against Arizona. Neither Rakocevic nor Mathews practiced until Wednesday, but both are expected to try to play.
Rakocevic said Tuesday that he was still trying to stabilize his diet and had yet to have a full meal. Mathews was a few days behind him in his recovery. In less dire circumstances, both might take it easy this week. But against an Arizona team that scored 85 points in the first meeting, USC could certainly use them.
“It’s come down to crunch time, and we have to do everything we can to win these last games,” Rakocevic said. “At the same time, we have to know that no one is going to feel sorry for us. There are no excuses left.”
As USC trudges through at nightmarish February, the Trojans desperately need a big win, and more wins, to keep their NCAA tournament bubble from bursting.
Rakocevic thought back to 2017, the last time USC found itself firmly on the bubble entering the season’s final stretch. The team had lost four in a row entering the last weekend, but responded by blowing out its final two opponents and securing a spot in the First Four of the NCAA tournament.
Rakocevic was a freshman, feeling the magic of March for the first time. This week, he tried to describe that feeling to his teammates. Only Mathews could relate.
“We tried telling them, it’s a crazy feeling,” Rakocevic said. “To have a whole plane for yourself, your coaches, fans, the band. You’re at the hotel, and you see pictures of you hung up. That March Madness feeling, it’s nuts.”
UP NEXT FOR USC
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 790.
Update: Arizona is coming off an overtime loss at home to Oregon. Freshman point guard Nico Mannion gave USC fits in Arizona’s 85-80 victory on Feb. 6, finishing with 20 points and seven assists. But Mannion hasn’t played nearly as well since. He averages 13.7 points a game.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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