Mapping out USC’s path to the NCAA Tournament: must-win games, overall targets, and more
USC’s NCAA Tournament math just became a lot more favorable after the monster win over UCLA. USC not only beat the Bruins; it beat up the first-place team in the Pac-12, winning by 13 points. That’s a hefty NET ranking changer for the Trojans, who were squarely on the bubble and are now well inside the cut line for the NCAA Tournament. They haven’t ceased to be a bubble team, but they’re close to crossing the boundary between a true bubble team and a team which is safely in the field. They do have work left, and they’re definitely not a lock, but they’re also no longer in that cluster of teams which is missing a signature win and is still fighting an uphill battle to get into the field.
The Trojans aren’t safe, but they have their big win. Unlike the teams on the middle of the bubble, USC’s goal is to now maintain its position. Improving its position would be wonderful, and the team should obviously try to do that in February, but the point to emphasize is that as long as USC doesn’t lose any ground before Selection Sunday, it will be in the field of 68.
USC — which doesn’t play another game until Thursday, February 2 — will be a projected No. 10 seed entering the month of February. As long as can hold its ground, it will be in the bracket on Selection Sunday, which is March 12, 2023.
Let’s go through the rest of the schedule and evaluate the importance of each game.
VS WASHINGTON STATE, FEBRUARY 2
Feb 20, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Washington State Cougars forward DJ Rodman (11) fouls USC Trojans guard Boogie Ellis (0) in the second half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
This is a game USC definitely needs to win. The Trojans lost to Washington State on New Year’s Day. Beyond the fact that USC would instantly give back momentum after the UCLA victory, a loss would also give the selection committee a sweep loss to the Cougars. That would look very bad on the nitty gritty reports the committee evaluates in the days heading up to Selection Sunday.
VS WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 4
Feb 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins (left) and Southern California Trojans head coach Andy Enfield before the game at the Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Yes, USC very much needs to win this game. The Trojans’ ability to maintain ground — and not lose their current position in the NCAA Tournament field — is predicated on winning the games they are supposed to win. Washington at home? USC is supposed to win. The Trojans won by 13 in Seattle on December 30. Take care of business here.
If the Trojans do sweep the Washington schools next week in Los Angeles, they would give themselves margin for error in the future games on their slate. That’s part of the calculus when mapping out the must-wins and non-essential games. Winning the “easy” ones means USC doesn’t have to grab an extra “hard” win.
AT OREGON, FEBRUARY 9
Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; (Editors Notes: Caption Correction) Oregon Ducks head coach Dana Altman talks with his team during a timeout against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the first half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
If USC sweeps the Washington schools, this will not be a must-win game. If USC loses once to the Washington schools, this game becomes a lot more important for the Trojans.
That’s exactly the point we’re emphasizing here: Win the games you’re supposed to win, and then tough assignments such as going to Eugene to play the Ducks aren’t must-win situations. That’s why it’s so crucial for USC to not play down to the competition against the teams it is supposed to beat. In many ways, those games need to become more urgent and intense than any other games on the schedule.
AT OREGON STATE, FEBRUARY 11
Jan 16, 2021; Corvallis, Oregon, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils guard Remy Martin (1) is fouled while shooting by Oregon State Beavers forward Rodrigue Andela (34) during the second half at Gill Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
This is a must-win. It’s exactly the kind of game USC cannot afford to lose if it wants to maintain its position in the NCAA Tournament field. OSU is dreadful. The Beavers lost at home to Utah 63-44 on Thursday. They lost to Stanford. They scored just 42 points in a loss at Colorado. USC simply has to win in Corvallis. This game is more important than the Oregon game, even though it’s not as sexy and won’t get as much national or regional publicity.
VS CALIFORNIA, FEBRUARY 16
Feb 6, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; California Golden Bears head coach Mark Fox calls out in the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
This is a must-win. USC can’t lose to a bottom-feeder, period. Not Oregon State. Not Cal.
Not the next team on the schedule, either:
VS STANFORD, FEBRUARY 18
Feb 3, 2022; Stanford, California, USA; Stanford Cardinal head coach Jerod Haase on the sideline during the second half against the Washington State Cougars at Maples Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
USC has to take care of an atrocious Stanford team which barely beat Chicago State this past Wednesday after trailing for most of the game.
Look at the next six games as a cluster: If USC goes 5-1 against a lot of teams it should beat — the Washington schools, Oregon State, and the Bay Area schools — it will definitely remain well inside the NCAA Tournament cut line heading into late February and will achieve the necessary goal of maintaining its position relative to the bubble and the overall field.
AT COLORADO, FEBRUARY 23
Jan 9, 2022; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Colorado Buffaloes head coach Tad Boyle reacts after an 300th win is announced following the game over the Washington Huskies at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
If USC does go 5-1 in its next six games against the Washington schools, the Oregon schools, and the Bay Area schools, this game against Colorado in Boulder won’t be a must-win. However, USC does need to split the Mountain road trip. It doesn’t have to sweep, but it does need one win.
Given that Utah in Salt Lake City will be hard, this is probably the better, more likely opportunity to grab a win in the mountains.
AT UTAH, FEBRUARY 25
Dec 1, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony (10) celebrates with fans after their win against the Arizona Wildcats at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
If USC does go 5-1 in the next six games, and then loses at Colorado, this game will be very important. Utah is currently trailing USC in terms of overall bubble positioning, but that could change in the next three weeks. As stated above, USC would maintain stability and feel safe for the NCAA Tournament if it can split the Mountain road trip. Winning at Colorado would take a lot of pressure off the Trojans heading into Salt Lake City.
I recommend winning in Boulder so that this game doesn’t become more urgent.
VS ARIZONA, MARCH 2
Mar 1, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) and USC Trojans forward Chevez Goodwin (1) fights for a ball during the first half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
We’re looking a month ahead here, so obviously, the specific details of the pregame situation would dictate how big a game this is. On a general level, though, we can say that if USC goes 6-2 in its next eight games — 5-1 over the next three weeks and then 1-1 on the Mountain road trip — this will definitely not be a must-win game, a game USC has to win to make the NCAA Tournament.
However: Beating Arizona becomes a lot more important if USC loses at least three games over the next month. If USC does lose four games in its next eight, then this will be an absolute must-win game.
Again: Winning the games USC is supposed to win will take a lot of pressure off the Trojans’ backs when they face really good teams such as Arizona. That’s a powerful incentive to not slip up against Washington or Oregon State or Cal or Stanford.
VS ARIZONA STATE, MARCH 4
Jan 26, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Bobby Hurley reacts to a jump-ball call by the officials during the second half against the Washington Huskies at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona State is — as of Friday, January 27 — squarely on the bubble and behind USC in the Pac-12 bubble pecking order. The Sun Devils have lost three straight and need to make up ground. We don’t know where ASU will be, relative to the bubble, in early March. However, if USC goes 6-3 in its next nine games (with losses at Oregon and Utah and then at home versus Arizona), it should still be in a strong-enough position that it doesn’t have to win this game.
Important note: If USC does go 6-3 in its next nine, it will be important to at least win one more game before Selection Sunday. That win doesn’t have to be against Arizona State. It can come in the Pac-12 Tournament. Obviously, though, beating ASU would probably be a “let’s nail down this NCAA bid now and not worry about having to get extra work done at the Pac-12 Tournament.” This could also be a game which determines whether USC makes the NCAA field as a First Four team which has to play an extra game in Dayton, or whether the Trojans go directly to the Round of 64 on Thursday, March 16 or Friday, March 17.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 12: USC Trojans players watch from the bench area as the team takes on the Colorado Buffaloes during the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament semifinals at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Buffaloes defeated the Trojans 72-70. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
There are lots of games to be played before we get to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, but let’s map out some scenarios:
If USC goes 7-3 in its next 10 games, the Trojans should be fine for the NCAA Tournament. Should be. They might not be a total lock, but the odds would likely be in their favor.
If USC goes 6-4 in its next 10, the Trojans would need to win at least one game at the Pac-12 Tournament to feel good. They might need to win two.
Here’s a key point about the Pac-12 Tournament: USC and other teams are battling for a top-four spot in the standings. That top-four spot means a bye in the first round, which means not having an extra game against a bad team (Cal, Stanford, Oregon State) which drags down the computer numbers and metrics while also creating a game which, if lost, could be a resume-killing event. It’s very important for USC and the other Pac-12 bubble teams — Arizona State and Utah — to get into the top four.
If USC does get into the top four, the Trojans’ quarterfinal could very well be against Arizona State or Utah. If USC is in any bubble danger, winning that quarterfinal should be enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Losing that game could create a very long wait on Selection Sunday.
January 14, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Jan 14, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Andy Enfield reacts against the Utah Utes in the first half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
We have said this a few times, but we’ll say it once more just to be absolutely clear: As long as USC wins the games it should win, it should be fine.
If USC can sweep the Washington schools at home, beat Oregon State, sweep the Bay Area schools at home, and then get one of either Colorado on the road or Arizona State at home, followed by one Pac-12 Tournament win, that’s seven wins with zero bad losses.
That should be enough. We’re not going to guarantee that it will, because other bubble teams might do amazing things in their conference tournaments, but USC’s odds of making the NCAA Tournament would definitely be better than 50-50.
Win the games you’re supposed to win and this should work out fine for USC. Period.