Categoria: NCAA Tournament

Season Review: USC Basketball Overachieves, Setting Up A Bright Future

For the second year in a row, USC’s season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament, this time with a 72-62 loss to Michigan State.

It was a disappointing loss for the Trojans, given that their own offensive shortcomings played a major role in the defeat. But entering the season there was no guarantee this was even a tournament team. Only Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis were key rotation pieces a year ago, and the Trojans had to rely on many untested freshmen and sophomores.

Only the team dynamic worked, and the young Trojans developed into some valuable role players.

Reese Dixon-Waters was Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year with his ability to score and defend off the bench. Kobe Johnson led the conference in steals and shot 36% from 3-point range. Tre White showed flashes as someone who can create his own shot. Joshua Morgan was an intimidating rim protector. Vincent Iwuchukwu had moments on offense when he was healthy enough to play. Kijani Wright developed into a reliable defender.

Which means, moving forward, all the pieces are in place to play around the dynamic force that is joining the team next year. We’ll touch more on him in a moment, but this season could end being looked at as a springboard to greater success in a year.

Highlights Two top-25 home wins over Auburn and UCLA certainly rank near the top of the list. So does a sweep of the Mountain road trip, something the Trojans never take for granted. And overcoming a season-opening loss to Florida Gulf Coast to finish tied for second in the Pac-12 was certainly an achievement. But the aforementioned player development will likely be the lasting legacy of this USC season.

Lowlights It has to be the way the season ended. Losing to Arizona with outright second place on the line, almost blowing senior day to Arizona State only to come out completely flat in the Pac-12 tournament opener to the Sun Devils was bad enough. But that trend of slow starts and offensive droughts followed USC to Columbus as the Trojans shot 34.4% from the floor in the second half against Michigan State.

Who’s gone Peterson is graduating, while Ellis has made clear he intends to forgo his fifth season of eligibility and declare for the NBA draft. The pair did an admirable job leading these young Trojans as captains this season.

Though he had a tendency to be streaky, Peterson was always capable of stuffing a stat sheet in multiple ways. And he fought through back spasms over the course of the last three weeks of the season, refusing to miss a game despite his obvious discomfort.

Ellis’ blossoming into a true playmaker was one of the highlights of USC’s season. He arrived in Los Angeles in 2021 as a renowned scorer but an unbalanced game. But as his senior season progressed, he turned into a true point guard, impressing coaches and teammates with his decision making as he looked to make the right basketball play rather than just score.

Who’s on the fence There’s no Mobley brother weighing an NBA decision this spring. Most of USC’s contributors are expected to stay for next season, though it’s possible there are a couple players who opt to transfer and create scholarship spots for head coach Andy Enfield and his staff.

Who’s on the way The nation’s top overall recruit, point guard Isaiah Collier, should light the Galen Center up next season. He likes to push the tempo, running in transition and finishing with ferocious dunks. He has a smooth jumper and likes to drive to the rim with slippery moves. And most importantly, he is a true point guard who makes clever passes when his gravity inevitably pulls the defense in.

He’ll be joined by high school teammate and four-star center Arrinten Page. At 6-foot-9, Page is an athletic, high-flying big with impeccable chemistry with Collier. And four-star combo guard Silas Demary Jr. rounds out the recruiting class as a pure scorer.

As of now, all 13 scholarship slots are accounted for next year. But if anyone transfers out, USC would like to add another perimeter scorer who can create his own shot or a low post big who can take entry passes and find ways to score.

Amari Bailey Can ‘morph’ Into What UCLA Needs In NCAA Tournament

SACRAMENTO — Amari Bailey is familiar with the Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

He was a freshman in high school when Sierra Canyon played there in the CIF State Open Division final in March 2019. The highly touted lefty tallied nine points, three rebounds and four assists to help the Trailblazers beat Sacramento Sheldon 76-52 and hoist the program’s second consecutive state title.

He also created a viral moment in the game, dunking over 6-foot-8 Brennan Newsom, which gave Southern California a tease of what was to come before Bailey went on to an outstanding prep career and earned McDonald’s All-American status.

UCLA’s Amari Bailey is familiar with the Golden 1 Center. He won a CIF State Open title with Sierra Canyon as a freshman in March of 2019.

Four years later, he’s a college freshman in his first NCAA tournament back in Sacramento.

I was there in 2019. I’m here now. Time flies.

— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) March 17, 2023

Four years later, Bailey is a college freshman back in the state’s capital looking to help UCLA make a deep run in the NCAA tournament when they need him most.

After an 86-53 first-round victory over UNC Asheville on Thursday night, the second-seeded Bruins will face seventh-seeded Northwestern in the second round at 5:40 p.m. Saturday in the Golden 1 Center.

The 6-foot-5 Bailey filled the stat sheet in the win, notching 17 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals in 30 minutes.

“It was just a surreal feeling. It felt like a full-circle moment,” Bailey said about playing in the same arena. “I just had chills running through my body. I just wanted to stay focused and stay present in the moment.”

At Sierra Canyon, Bailey was in support of then-seniors Cassius Stanley, Scotty Pippen Jr., KJ Martin and Christian Koloko – all future NBA players.

“Amari has an amazing ability to morph into whatever player the team needs him to be,” Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier said. “He knew he wasn’t going to be a primary scorer.”

“He was going to play defense,” Chevalier added. “He was our ‘no-catch’ guy. We would put him on the other team’s best player.”

When Bailey arrived in Westwood, his role was eerily similar to the role he had at Sierra Canyon in year one, supporting Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and Jaylen Clark. But adjusting to the college game is, of course, a lot more challenging.

“I think it’s just a lot harder than people realize, to find a comfort zone,” Cronin said. “You have to find a comfort zone on our team. You’re coming in and playing with the Player of the Year in the Pac-12 [Jaquez], (Tyger) Campbell and Dave (Singleton), a lot of guys that have been around. It’s been a process for he and I of trying to get him to the comfort zone.”

Bailey’s role has helped UCLA win 30 games – the most of any power six conference team – win a Pac-12 Conference regular-season title, and get as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll while averaging 10.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

Since Jaylen Clark – the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year – went down with a lower leg injury, Bailey has shown that morphing ability Chevalier was referencing, averaging 18 points and 5.3 rebounds per game during the conference tournament, including a career-high 26 points in UCLA’s 80-69 win over Colorado.

On top of his play as of late, Bailey has responded well to Cronin’s well-known tough coaching.

“I’m no Mick Cronin, but I coached (Amari) pretty hard, I’d say he’s had a lot of practice,” Chevalier said laughing.

Bailey has a history of answering the call when challenged. He championed the defensive role as a freshman in high school. He turned into Mr. Do-it-all his junior season, averaging 29.2 points, 9.1 rebounds & 6.5 assists and notched three triple-doubles. He has been an outstanding role player throughout UCLA’s regular season, but now he’s being called on to be more in the team’s run toward a national title.

More defense. More rebounding. More offense. More minutes.

So far, he’s answered that call, too.

“He’s embraced the defensive end, which doesn’t surprise me. The guy is from the south side of Chicago. He’s tough,” Cronin said.

UCLA (30-5) vs. Northwestern (22-11) What: NCAA second round

When: 5:40 p.m. Saturday

Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento


USC’s Offense Disappears In NCAA Tournament Loss To Michigan State

COLUMBUS — Perhaps this was the way it was always meant to end. A USC men’s basketball team whose offense had a penchant for disappearing for vast stretches of games, vanishing at the worst possible moment.

It’s something USC could get away with at times over the course of the season, but not Friday, as the 10th-seeded Trojans fell to seventh-seeded Michigan State 72-62 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

USC shot 11 for 32 from the floor in the second half. Eleven turnovers – eight in the second half – generated 16 Michigan State points. Leading scorers Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson combined to shoot 7 for 22 from the floor.

“This game did not go as planned in the second half,” Trojans head coach Andy Enfield said. “A lot of timely shot-making by Michigan State and some timely misses on our part.”

And somehow worse, with USC down nine with two minutes left, after Michigan State missed three consecutive front ends of one-and-one free throws, the Trojans (22-11) missed two jumpers and turned the ball over, netting zero points, as the opportunity for a comeback slipped away.

“When you’re trailing and you’re trying to figure it out and gauge trying to get 3s versus easier twos, it’s just something that’s part of the game,” Peterson said. “We tried to find the best shot possible.”

Not to say USC’s offensive woes began in the second half.

The Trojans quickly fell behind by 11, in part due to allowing Michigan State (20-12) to make 10 of 18 attempts with open looks. But the bigger problem for USC was its own shot selection.

USC missed nine of its first 12 attempts and 12 of its first 15 shots were jumpers. The Trojans were settling for long looks, including one 30-foot Ellis 3-pointer that left Enfield flabbergasted.

After averaging 25.8 points across the last six games of the regular season, Ellis never got comfortable against Michigan State. He was held to six points, his lowest point total since Dec. 7. And his five assists were offset by three turnovers.

“I let my teammates down today,” Ellis said. “I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with a great pace. But today I played a little bit too fast. So that’s on me.”

But USC found an unlikely first-half hero, as is so often the case in March.

Michigan State opted not to defend center Joshua Morgan when USC drove to the rim, instead deploying his man to double-team the ball handler. So USC started feeding Morgan. The center made a jumper and three layups, and USC was within three.

When Morgan returned to the bench during the ensuing MSU timeout, he could hardly stand up straight he was so out of breath. But that didn’t stop assistant coach Eric Mobley and freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu from mobbing him.

After the break, Ellis hit a floater – his first basket of the game, 17 minutes in – and Kijani Wright sank a free throw to tie it, and that’s how the Trojans and Spartans would enter halftime.

But USC again could not find enough energy to start the second half. The Trojans opened 2 for 8 from the field, while Michigan State made 7 of 11. USC went scoreless for three minutes while Tyson Walker, moments after injuring his elbow on an Ellis charge, found Joey Hauser for a 3, then drove in for a second-chance layup.

When Carson Cooper put back a miss for a two-handed dunk, Enfield called timeout with USC trailing 49-40.

A driving, one-handed dunk from Johnson stopped the bleeding, then a dump down from Dixon-Waters to an open Morgan for a dunk got USC within five again.

But USC suffered another scoring drought, this one four minutes long. USC missed five consecutive shots and turned the ball over three times, including a pass from Morgan out to the perimeter that A.J. Hoggard intercepted and took the distance for a layup.

So when USC fell behind by 15 as Michigan State hit back-to-back corner 3s, Jaden Akins bouncing up the court in celebration after the second. The large Spartan contingent at Nationwide Arena jumped about, too, sensing the win in hand.

Even when Johnson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get within nine, Michigan State was able to survive not by hitting free throws but by grabbing the rebounds of USC’s repeated misses.

Unfortunately for USC, cold spells on offense were not an uncommon occurrence in losses this year. Asked if he needed to do a philosophical reevaluation of the USC offense this offseason, Enfield put the onus on his players.

“The scoring droughts are usually either you miss open shots or guys try to do too much on their own, one-on-one, instead of just moving the ball and spacing and cutting,” he said. “It is frustrating at times throughout the season. But for the most part our guys played the right way.”

But not enough to move on this March.

USC Seeks Sharp Start Vs. Michigan State In NCAA Tournament

COLUMBUS — USC’s last two playoff games have followed a similar pattern.

Last week in the Trojans’ Pac-12 tournament opener, USC fell behind Arizona State 8-0 and was never able to dig out of that hole.

Last year in the NCAA tournament, Miami jumped out to an 11-point lead as USC didn’t score its 20th point until there was 1:03 left in the first half. Despite Drew Peterson’s last-minute heroics, the Trojans could not weather the Hurricanes.

So as 10th-seeded USC prepares for this year’s NCAA tournament opener against seventh-seeded Michigan State on Friday at Nationwide Arena, the Trojans want to avoid a similar slow start that dooms their March dreams.

“As I told our players, this is what you play for. This is what you dream about as a young player growing up,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “You’re on the biggest stage and competing for a national championship. So they better be ready. I’m sure they will.”

This season has been one of exceeding expectations for these Trojans (22-10). Opening the season with a Quadrant IV loss to Florida Gulf Coast seemed to portend a rebuilding year, with Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis the only returning starters and many freshmen and sophomores around them.

But USC won 11 of its next 12 games and built a résumé of wins over tournament teams Vermont, Auburn, UCLA and Arizona State. The Trojans played their typical brand of defense, Ellis blossomed as a playmaker and young wings Kobe Johnson, Reese Dixon-Waters and Tre White grew into their roles.

It was enough for the Trojans to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, their third consecutive appearance. Standing in the way – the Spartans (19-12).

This isn’t your typical Tom Izzo-coached team. Only a plus-three average rebounding margin, allowing opponents to shoot 45.0% from the floor. Only one real big man, Joey Hauser, who is a threat to score in the paint.

Instead, Michigan State has relied on guard play and 3-point shooting this season, reminding Ellis of Arizona State.

“Tyson Walker is an elite scorer. He can shoot it with range. Very quick,” Enfield said. “He’s one of their leaders. But they have a lot of other good players that complement what he does.”

The Spartans’ reliance on guards will play into undersized USC’s favor. The Trojans have typically played with one big on the court this season, with defensive stalwart Joshua Morgan starting and being relieved by Kijani Wright or Vincent Iwuchukwu.

Iwuchukwu has missed USC’s past two games with a back injury. Enfield described the freshman 7-footer’s condition as day to day Thursday. But during the Trojans’ public shootaround at Nationwide Arena, Iwuchukwu did not participate and instead watched from the sidelines in plaid USC pajama pants.

USC won’t have much to time to change out of its PJs on Friday. The Trojans’ tournament opener tips off just after noon in Ohio, or 9:15 a.m. in Los Angeles.

It’s a change of pace for USC after so many 8 p.m. starts this year, and another factor the Trojans will need to combat as they try to avoid another slow March start. But USC flew to Columbus on Tuesday to adjust to the new time zone and ensure it is ready for Friday.

“We knew it’s all about preparation going into a game like this. We’re prepared, getting good sleep, all that stuff,” Peterson said. “I think we’re the first game on Friday, so excited to be able to get that showcase slot.”

No. 10 USC vs. No. 7 Michigan State What: NCAA tournament first round

When: 9:15 a.m. Friday

Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus Arena