What’s Next for USC Basketball After Losing the First Round of the NCAA Tournament?
Boogie Ellis came into the NCAA tournament and played the best basketball streak of his career. Averaging more than 24 points in his last seven games, he wanted to add some March memories before ending his stint with the Trojans.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for Ellis or USC on Friday morning.
No. 7-seeded Michigan blew away in a rather one-sided second half with a 72-62 win in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio, ending the Trojans’ season.
The loss really underscored just how much USC had relied on Ellis this season as he racked up so many of the team’s best wins. Alternatively, in this instance, not having him at the peak of his powers was too much, as the senior guard only managed 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting while missing all 3 of his 3-point attempts.
Ellis had only been held in single digits once more since mid-December.
“They did a good job. I let my teammates down today. I didn’t shoot. And they made it difficult for me. Just team defense, jumping for the ball, being on all the gaps, pretty much,” Ellis said afterwards. “…I played too fast today. I haven’t changed my pace all year. I’m playing at a great pace. But today I played a little bit too fast. So that’s on me.”
Center Josh Morgan had one of his best scoring games of the season with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, Kobe Johnson had 13 points and 9 rebounds, Drew Peterson had 11 and Reese Dixon-Waters had 10 for the Trojans, who went into the Goal come 22-11.
While Michigan State (20-12) came into play with the priority of containing Ellis, USC looked to negate the Spartans’ 3-point shooting and managed to keep them on 5-of-14 from the limit.
But some of those 3s felt like daggers, led by forward Joey Hauser, who led with 17 points and hit 4 of 6 3s.
A pair of dunks by Carson Cooper – the second after a second chance putback – increased the Spartans’ lead to 49-40 with 13:43, and the Trojans never closed the gap. It was another 9-point game as Hauser and Jaden Akins hit back-to-back 3s in the final 5:18.
“Unfortunately, this game didn’t go as planned in the second half,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “A lot of timely shots from Michigan State and some timely errors on our part, I thought, was the difference in the game in the second half. We also had 8 turnovers, only 3 at half time. Some of those turnovers were self-inflicted, meaning we just turned the ball over, like three or four of them. But our boys fought and played very hard throughout the game.
While this was USC’s third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance (and would be four if the 2020 tournament were not canceled) – the longest such streak for the program since 2007-09 – it also results in two eliminations in Follow the Trojans in the first round.
And now, looking ahead to next season, they mostly have to start over.
Peterson (13.9 PPG and team-high 6.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game) is ineligible and Ellis (17.7 PPG) is expected to have his shot at the NBA.
There’s always the unpredictability of what the transfer portal will take or bring, but barring unexpected departures, USC Johnson (a team captain averaging 9.2 PPG and 5.0 RPG) and Dixon-Waters (9.8 PPG) will serve as guards return, both of whom have made a move as forwards this season along with rising guard sophomore Tre White, a versatile 6’7 averaging 9.0 PPG and 5.1 RPG). Leading up, the Trojans return with Morgan (their defensive anchor at 63 blocks, 7.0 PPG and 5.2 RPG) and rising 7ft 1 student Vincent Iwuchukwu.
Iwuchukwu was supposed to be a major factor this year, but between his cardiac arrest last summer and a season-ending back injury, he’s played in just 14 games while still looking a bit raw.
With a full, healthy offseason in store, there’s no telling what the former five-star contender could deliver for USC next season.
“Without him, it’s been a challenge this year, half the year,” Enfield said. “He missed the first half of the season, came back, started playing really well, got caught up in some of our defensive/offensive schemes and was back out here by the end of the year. …
“Vince’s absence is certainly impacting our team and our rotation. But that’s no excuse for why we lost. But you asked the question about Vince. He is a big part of our program and we hope for the best that he recovers.”
Nobody else on the roster has been averaging at least 10 minutes per game, so players like Kijani Wright, Oziyah Sellers, Malik Thomas, Harrison Hornery and Iaroslav Niagu are wildcards moving forward.
The big question is, who’s really taking on Ellis and Peterson as offensive hotspots?
Well Johnson, Dixon-Waters or White could certainly capitalize on the opportunity next season but if the Trojans are to reach their maximum potential in 2023-24 then the answer has to be five-star freshman point guard Isaiah Collier – the #1 overall view in the country, from Marietta, Georgia.
Collier leads the country’s No. 6 recruiting class for the Trojans, along with four-star forward Arrinten Page (Collier’s HS teammate) and four-star guard Silas Demary Jr. – No. 58 and 59 national candidates .
If all of those players return with the three freshmen, USC will hit the 13 scholarship limit and have no more room to accept transfers. But here, too, it is quite possible that one or two places will become free due to an outgoing transfer.
But the unknown aside, perhaps an ideal starting lineup for the Trojans next year would look like this:
PG – Isaiah Collier
G – Reese Dixon-Waters
With White, Page, Demary and one or two of the wild cards filling in the rotation.
That’s two five-star talent, the best shot blocker in the Pac-12, and two rising guards – including a great defensive player in Johnson – along with some high upside options off the bench.
This group forecasts the potential to extend USC’s NCAA tournament series, which is significant because the Trojans have never played in four straight NCAA tournaments (which they already would have done but for the 2020 cancellation).
Enfield and his staff have made USC basketball a consistent postseason program while raising the bar for recruiting by routinely bringing in five-star talent.
However, with the Trojans another year away from their memorable Elite Eight run in 2021, the pressure will mount not only to reach the postseason but also to show a real presence in March.