It wasn’t always the smoothest ride, all the way down to the long wait on Selection Sunday. But for the third straight season, USC is on its way to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, punching its ticket as a No. 10 seed.
The Trojans will face Michigan State, the No. 7 seed in the East region, on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
USC (22-10) spent most of its season squarely on the tournament bubble, its status swinging back and forth, depending on the week. But an early defeat in the Pac-12 tournament couldn’t keep the Trojans from matching the longest streak in program history with three bids in a row.
Like USC, Michigan State (19-12) enters the tournament after a swift exit in the Big Ten Conference tournament and largely uneven season. The Spartans haven’t won three in a row since early January.
But in Tom Izzo, Michigan State boasts one of the tournament’s most respected coaches. Izzo is college basketball’s active leader in Final Four appearances among coaches with eight. His 53 NCAA tournament wins rank third among active coaches.
Another trip to the NCAA tournament for the Trojans under coach Andy Enfield was by no means assured in November. USC slipped up in a season-opening loss to Enfield’s former team, Florida Gulf Coast, a team that finished 7-11 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Outside expectations for USC cratered.
It took another month or so for the Trojans to finally find their footing. But soon enough, the pieces started to fit. Sophomore Kobe Johnson took a major step forward, emerging as one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. Freshman Tre White developed into a reliable third scorer, stepping into a major void in USC’s offense. By January, another talented freshman joined the fold, as Vincent Iwuchukwu returned from cardiac arrest to help fortify a paper-thin frontcourt.
A resounding win over UCLA in January seemed to announce the Trojans’ late arrival and their point guard’s ascent into stardom. Boogie Ellis scored 31 in that win over the Bruins and would dominate the Pac-12 from there, averaging 24 points per game and twice setting career highs in scoring over USC’s final dozen.
Still, Ellis alone couldn’t always carry an inconsistent offense. A late trip through Oregon saddled the Trojans with two more losses to non-tournament teams, including one to 11-21 Oregon State. A loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament a month later wouldn’t inspire much confidence, either.
But the selection committee had already seen enough to put USC in the field.
Now, the Trojans will have to hope they can get more out of its second-leading scorer, Drew Peterson, who has struggled through a stiff back over the past two weeks. He played through the pain in USC’s loss to Arizona State, but struggled mightily from the field, shooting two for 12.
Without him, USC may have a hard time keeping up with Michigan State, a team known to get hot from three-point range. The Spartans rank fourth in college basketball in three-point percentage.
Another prolonged cold stretch, and USC could find this tournament trip ends just as quickly as the last one.