There’s a lot to unpack about USC’s 77-69 win over Arizona State on Saturday night. Almost all of it is good. We’re definitely going to focus on Vince Iwuchukwu’s dynamic night and how much that could change this team’s outlook for the rest of the season. We’re going to look at the balanced contributions from several players on the roster. We’re going to deal with the last four and a half minutes of the game, in which USC completely dozed off and gave Andy Enfield a talking point for the coming week of practice.
For now, though — in this piece — we’re going to look at the most important story: USC’s improved position in the race for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Trojans helped themselves a lot with this win.
The Trojans still aren’t a central factor in the Pac-12 race, but with this victory — combined with UCLA’s loss to Arizona — the Trojans are in a position to move one game behind the Bruins if they can beat them next Thursday in a season-shaping game in the Galen Center. Utah is currently in second place in the Pac-12, but the Utes still have to make the Arizona road trip USC just completed. USC improved its chances of getting a first-round bye at the Pac-12 Tournament (which goes to the top four teams in the conference), which means it will have to win only three games to win an automatic bid instead of four, should it come to that.
If the Trojans are in the hunt for an at-large bid, getting a first-round bye means they would not have to play a bottom-tier team (a No. 12 or 11 seed) in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, which both hurts the resume and puts USC at risk of a profile-killing loss. The win over Arizona State gave USC a lot of leverage in the Pac-12.
Most of all, though, this win gives USC a quality road win on the resume, in addition to the home-court win over Auburn. Utah and Arizona State are the other bubble teams USC is fighting for position. Neither the Utes nor the Sun Devils have a Pac-12 road win as good as this one for the Trojans. Utah lost at UCLA. Arizona State has lost to UCLA and Arizona at home. ASU and Utah haven’t played each other; they eventually will in Tempe later this season.
USC isn’t ahead of Arizona State, but the Trojans are now much closer to the Sun Devils than they were before. USC probably still needs to beat either UCLA or Arizona to feel good about its NCAA Tournament chances, but this win over ASU means that if USC can really clean up against all non-UCLA, non-Arizona teams in the Pac-12, it could potentially have an alternate path to the NCAAs. A win over UCLA or Arizona now feels like a “this will definitely get UCLA into the tournament” win, as opposed to a “USC absolutely must win to have any chance” situation.