They were riding high, the morning after Jonah Mathews’ buzzer beater found the bottom of the net Saturday against UCLA, when the USC Trojans suddenly found themselves tumbling down a different NET, one coach Andy Enfield was far less pleased about.
That’s because this NET, which stands for the NCAA Evaluation Tool, could have an even more adverse effect on USC’s postseason placement than the other. As USC opens Pac-12 Conference tournament play Thursday against Arizona or Washington, NET, in its second season, is just about the only metric casting any doubt on the Trojans’ place in the NCAA tournament field.
It’s no wonder then, with USC (22-9) sitting uncomfortably at 43rd, that Enfield continues to doubt its viability.
“We were 39, then we fell three before we played, then we fell three more after we won? That’s why I’ve never been a big fan,” he said.
He’s hardly the only one. UCLA’s Mick Cronin, whose Bruins (19-12) are in far more dire straits at 76th, dismissed NET altogether. Although the metric could doom his team’s tournament hopes, Cronin hasn’t bothered to consider what it entails, he said last week.
“Those committee jobs, I tell you my experience with it, there’s so many metrics, if you want to put a team in, you cite that metric, if you want to put them out, you cite that metric,” Cronin said.
An extended run through the Pac-12 tournament would certainly help ease the tension for both teams. For USC, a win over Arizona, which has two more losses than USC but somehow ranks 29 spots ahead in the rankings, would give the Trojans a sixth victory in Quadrant 1 opportunities, more than most purported bubble teams can claim.
But if they’re tripped up Thursday, there could be some trepidation about the Trojans’ tournament standing. In NET’s debut a year ago, several teams ahead of USC’s current range were kept out of the field, including North Carolina State (33rd), Clemson (35th) and Texas (38th).
Clemson’s case last season offers an interesting corollary, even with three more losses than USC has at this point. Like the Trojans, last season’s Tigers boasted one of the nation’s most efficient defenses. Their adjusted strength of schedule ranked 23 spots ahead of where USC sits, and they also didn’t have a single bad loss in the lower two quadrants of the NET this season.
And yet, following a defeat in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Clemson was kept out of the field.
Enfield claimed this week that he’s not concerned about a similar fate. Still, he made USC’s case.
“We’re leading the Pac-12 in defense, so our defensive efficiency is good,” Enfield said. “We’re top 20 in the nation in defense. The bottom line is you have to win games. It’s really how much you win and the quality of wins you have. We’ve done both this year. We’re 22-9. We’ve won some big games, and we’re very confident we’ll go into Las Vegas and compete.”
Defense has been consistently the deciding factor in those big games. USC’s last 18 opponents have shot only 37.5% from the field, which, over a full season, would rank third in the nation. Four of those opponents were held to the lowest field-goal percentage of their season.
Enfield didn’t hesitate in calling the Trojans the best defensive team he has coached. If USC has any hope of extending its season, its stifling defense will have to be front and center.
“I think we’ll be kicked up a notch,” guard Ethan Anderson said. “I’ve seen this team time and time again, when we need big stops, we usually come up and get them.”
The question, as it has been all season, is whether USC can turn those stops into points. The Trojans’ adjusted offensive efficiency ranks lower than all but one team ahead of them in the NET rankings. That efficiency, or lack thereof, is part of the reason the metric isn’t exactly wild about USC’s performance this season.
No matter the formula, the Trojans are confident the strength of their defense should be a net gain, regardless.
“I feel like when our offense is clicking, same with our defense, we’re really hard to beat,” Mathews said. “But now, I think our defense gets our offense going. We get transition baskets. We get steals. The catalyst for our offense is our defense, and if we get that going, we’ll be OK.”