USC men’s basketball: High hopes despite uncertainty

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Date sent: 2017/11/10 02:17:10
In an intricate analogy late last season, Elijah Stewart compared the state of USC’s men’s basketball program to that of Harry Potter.
As detailed in the best-selling book series, the <a href=""></a> fictional wizard lived for most of his childhood in a cupboard under the stairwell at the home of his aunt and uncle.
“No love,” Stewart explained.
The Trojans were then on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, vying for an at-large berth in the 68-team field, and he believed they were overlooked.
So how does Stewart now feel about his team, which begins a much-anticipated season Friday against Cal State Fullerton? USC returned all but one scholarship player after advancing to the tournament’s round of 32 in March and was ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the first time in four decades, widely expected to contend for the Final Four despite the backdrop of an FBI corruption investigation.
The similarities with Harry Potter continue, Stewart deadpanned after a practice at the Galen Center this week. Despite humble beginnings, young Harry grew into the “king of the wizards,” Stewart said, hinting at a similar trajectory for the Trojans.
“Harry Potter started to get more respect as the trilogy went on,” he said.
Along with point guard Jordan McLaughlin, Stewart is one of two seniors on USC’s roster who were brought in as part of coach Andy Enfield’s first recruiting class in 2014.
“It started off rough,” McLaughlin said, “but got better each year.”
In their first season on campus, the Trojans finished eight games below .500.
“People were making fun of me,” Stewart said. “‘Loser going to USC. You’re going to lose there too.’”
The fortunes changed. USC made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, including a record 26 wins last season, a program simmering with talent and on the cusp of national prominence.
“I didn’t predict top-10,” McLaughlin said, “but I predicted we would get better every single year.”
Much of their expectations for this season stem from avoiding much attrition, an issue in previous years when several players transferred or unexpectedly turned pro.
A third of the roster toyed with entering the NBA draft after last season. Ultimately all the underclassmen remained in school, including big men Bennie Boatwright, the team’s leading scorer, and Chimezie Metu, who won the Pac-12’s most improved player award last season. None transferred either, leaving a more veteran-laden group.
“I felt, with me coming back and other guys <a href=""></a> coming back, that it would be a great team,” Metu said, “and a great opportunity for us to win a national championship.”
An FBI probe into corruption in college basketball has seemingly threatened to hamper those hopes this season.
In late September, USC associate head coach Tony Bland was placed on administrative leave after he was among 10 men charged in the bribery and corruption case and was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday. Prosecutors allege Bland earlier this year accepted $13,000 in exchange for steering players to a former sports agent and financial advisor. The FBI’s complaint also alleged Bland provided $9,000 in cash envelopes to the families of two unnamed current players, a development that could threaten their NCAA eligibility.
Asked Monday if all of their players would be available for the season opener Friday, Enfield said, “Everybody’s practicing.”
De’Anthony Melton, a versatile sophomore guard, was held out of recent scrimmages. Enfield declined to cite a reason.
The FBI report identified the two unnamed players as a freshman and a sophomore.
In an interview last month, USC athletic director Lynn Swann said the university would make determinations on players’ eligibility.
“Andy is focused on coaching the basketball team and rightfully so,” Swann said. “These are the things he can control.”
USC swiftly hired former FBI Director Louis Freeh and his company to conduct an internal investigation, but Swann said it would be preceded by the FBI investigation, adding to some uncertainty.

Date sent: 2017/11/11 01:48:57
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