Losing isn’t fun, but loss to Arizona shows why USC is on the right path
The USC Trojans lost on Sunday to the Arizona Wildcats.
They led by 10 points late in the first half.
They led by two points late in regulation.
They led by two points late in the first overtime period.
They were tied with one minute left in the second overtime period.
Losing a game like that is painful, and it should be. Competitors don’t take satisfaction in moral victories, even though they can relish being part of a good game in which the outcome was more the result of the opponent’s big plays than their own mistakes.
Yet, we can say something beyond this game and beyond this season: Sunday’s loss very neatly illustrates why USC’s long-term future is so bright. In the wake of a stinging loss, this might seem like an attempt to change the subject or ignore the seriousness of defeat.
It’s simply an attempt to look at the big picture, without any embellishment.
The big picture, for one thing, is that USC is ahead of schedule under Lindsay Gottlieb. Making the NCAA Tournament, which the Trojans are still very likely to do, would make Year 2 a success. The Trojans haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2014, and only once since 2006. No serious person would say that an NCAA berth is insufficient for Gottlieb’s second season on the job.
Looking beyond Year 2, however, consider why USC lost the Arizona game in a larger context (beyond the 16 Trojan turnovers in the game’s first 31 minutes).
USC played just six players against Arizona. In a double-overtime game, which contains 250 total minutes played per team (five players on the court at all times, playing 50 minutes total), six players sharing a 250-minute workload means each USC player averaged over 41 minutes played, which is more than a full regulation game of minutes.
One of Arizona’s regular rotation players, Esmery Martinez, fouled out in this game. The Wildcats had enough depth on their roster to turn to their bench and get important contributions.
USC was pushing uphill with only six players in a marathon game, and it still came within an eyelash of beating the program which was the national runner-up in 2021. USC is already at a point where it is trading punches with high-level Pac-12 programs, and it doesn’t even have top-tier depth.
We already know that Juju Watkins, the No. 1 recruit in the country, is coming to USC next season. That one addition will provide a significant boost to USC’s offense and crunch-time scoring capability. Given that a lot of players across the country can see the rapid improvement USC is making, and will want to play with Watkins, there’s a pretty good chance that Gottlieb can land at least one high-impact transfer in the portal.
Watkins plus one high-end portal addition could give next season’s USC team an eight-player rotation with legitimate offensive and defensive options which would give Gottlieb the ability to mix and match lineups, distribute minutes, and create a team which can translate this season’s narrow losses against quality teams into victories.
This season’s USC team has lost only six games, and that’s without top-level depth, without positional flexibility, without Juju Watkins.
We know USC is getting better and is poised to improve, but that seems very general and vague. Let’s be more specific: USC could legitimately contend for the Pac-12 title next season. That’s not an absurd statement. The Trojans are only three games behind Stanford and Utah right now.
USC could definitely be a top-four seed in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, which means the Trojans would have a great chance of making the Sweet 16. That level of achievement is not that far beyond the horizon. It isn’t guaranteed, but it’s certainly attainable.