By Rich Ruben
The Trojans lost an almost “must win” game at Utah 79-65, and will now limp home to finish out the regular season. The loss leaves USC with a 19-9 record overall and 8-7 in Pac-12 play and in sixth place. It is likely out of reach for the Trojans to finish in the top four in the Pac-12 and avoid a first round game in the Pac-12 Tournament, which starts in 2 1/2 weeks. They are two games in the loss column behind the four teams which are currently second-fifth. Even more importantly, the chances to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament have greatly dimmed. They still have a chance, but there is little margin and they must win games.
Three main factors determined the outcome of this game. Perhaps most importantly the Trojans were playing with a short roster. SC has ten scholarship players eligible this season. Nick Rakocevic was sick, and played only five minutes. He started the game and lasted about a minute and a half, and then came back for one very short stint. He appeared to be struggling to get up and down the court. He finished with 2 points and 1 rebound. Isaiah Mobley played in Nick’s place, but he suffered an ankle injury with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half, and played only four minutes after that and scored only 1 point.
There was still more bad news. Jonah Mathews missed a few minutes early in the second half due to injury, but he was able to return. When he went out he had not scored, though he came back with a few quick baskets after his return. For the fourth straight game, Kyle Sturdivant was not with the team, due to the death of his father. And, finally, Daniel Utomi fouled out at the three minute mark, but by then it was unlikely the remaining Trojans had another run left.
The second major factor for this loss was horrendous shooting from the foul line. The game was closer than the final score. The Trojans cut the lead to four in the second half after trailing by 15 earlier, but were forced to foul in the last two minutes. For the game, SC made 6-16 from the line.
The third important piece in the game was that the Utes made almost half of their three point shots, many of which were wide open looks, though a couple were desperation attempts to beat the shot clock.
The Trojans had trouble scoring for the first three quarters of the game, and seemed to lack energy at times, especially early. They had 10 turnovers in the first half which led to 14 points for the Utes which helped Utah to a 6 point halftime lead. Although Utah also had turnover issues, especially in the first half, the Trojans were not able to take advantage and scored only 3 points off Utah first half turnovers.
The Trojans had only 41 points in the first twenty nine plus minutes. With the short bench, Quinton Adlesh and Max Agbonkpolo received more playing time than usual. On back to back possessions they each made a three in the first half, but those were the only points either of them scored.
Onyeka was forced to play a lot of minutes, without Nick for almost the entire game and Isaiah for over half of the game. He played hard, and took on the Utes almost by himself inside. He finished with 18 points and 13 boards, despite being double teamed every time he got the ball near the basket.
Elijah Weaver finished with 13 points and Jonah and Ethan Anderson with 9 each.
Where Does This Leave The Trojans?
The Trojans are 2-5 in their last seven games, and their 45 NET ranking entering this game will undoubtedly fall. Each of their final three games will present a difficult challenge, even if the the Trojans return to full strength. Arizona is inconsistent at times, especially on the road, but they have the most overall talent in the conference. ASU is red hot, and is now in first place in the conference. UCLA is also very hot over the last month and may have a better chance to reach the NCAA Tournament than the Trojans, a result which seemed impossible a few weeks ago.
After this game, SC is likely on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble, though conceivably the Trojans would land one of the last few bids if the season was over today. The Trojans likely need to win two of the final three home games and maybe a game in the Pac-12 Tournament to be safely in the NCAA bid Tournament. They are having another miserable February, which doesn’t bode well for the next two weeks. They need to find answers quickly. They can rightly blame part of Sunday’s troubles on the very short roster, but they need to beat good teams in close conference games. They could have beaten Arizona in Tucson two weeks ago, and should have beaten the Sun Devils In Tempe. Several of the players have been inconsistent during the recent poor stretch. The Trojans won’t make the Tournament without a good effort from everyone over the next two weeks.
After the season is over, I will take a deep dive into the reasons for the team’s successes and the causes of their failures.