Immediately after the final buzzer sounded on USC’s 69-65 defeat to Colorado Saturday at Galen Center, Colorado head coach Tad Boyle turned to the Buffaloes supporters behind him in the stands and yelled emphatically in celebration. As he went through the handshake line with the USC coaching staff, Trojans associate head coach Jason Hart confronted Boyle, and the two exchanged words.
“Supposedly,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said, “their coach swore at us, and that’s all I know.”
It was the continuation of a feud that stretches back to last season, when Boyle called Enfield out over USC’s recruiting practices. Enfield fired back with a statement and, during the teams’ next meeting, he called a timeout with 21 seconds left and USC ahead by 12 points to presumably rub in the victory. Boyle took exception to that and made it clear how much defeating USC Saturday meant to him.
“I meant no disrespect by it,” Boyle told reporters. “But this game meant a lot to me. I don’t forget what happened last year with the timeout.”
This quarrel is a microcosm of the Pac-12 season. Here are the men in charge of two programs that have been fairly mediocre this season, hovering around .500 in conference play, drumming up beef that nobody really cares about. There is zero buzz on campus surrounding the federal investigation into college basketball, which USC was involved in after former assistant coach Tony Bland was arrested in the fall of 2017. In January, Bland reached a plea deal on charges of conspiring to commit bribery to lure players to specific agents.
But at a school where basketball barely registers on anyone’s radar, this story generated little interest — certainly not enough for two Pac-12 coaches to act petty following victories. And yet, there was Boyle, hollering like Colorado had just won the national championship rather than improved to 5-6 in an unimpressive conference.
Boyle to Saturday’s game was like the Pac-12 to the rest of the country: flailing its arms, kicking and screaming, attempting to stay relevant. One look at the standings is all it takes to figure out that this conference is, um, not good.
Washington, which won its first 10 conference games, couldn’t even claim a spot in the AP Top 25 — and it definitely won’t after falling to Arizona State on Saturday. There are three teams tied for second at 7-4 and then USC at 6-5. It would be one thing if the parity across the league was because all the teams were good and beating up on each other, but it is a problem if the parity is because the schools are equally bad.
Unfortunately, the latter is where the conference is at. Unless another team starts picking up steam down the stretch, the Pac-12 is looking at just one bid in the NCAA tournament — a woeful outcome for a Power 5 conference.
The marquee programs are struggling, and the best school, Washington, can’t get any national love despite being 10-1 in conference play. Arizona State, which knocked off No. 1 Kansas earlier this season, can’t seem to stay consistent. Arizona and Oregon aren’t even in contention. USC has dropped three of four after a three-game win streak showed the team’s flash of promise. Things have gotten so bad at UCLA that alumni and boosters are clamoring for former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino to take over the helm.
“There are a lot of teams [that], if they play well, can beat anybody in the league,” Enfield said. “If you don’t bring your best game, you can lose to anybody in the league. So there’s a lot of teams that, on any given night, can win by 10-15 points and maybe play the same team the next night and lose by 10-15.”
That is indeed the definition of parity, but not in a good sense. USC’s last seven games are a strong example. Last month, the Trojans rolled past UCLA, Arizona and ASU and jumped to second in the conference. But in the last week and half, they suffered a road loss at Washington and brutal back-to-back home defeats to Utah and Colorado.
Those were three games that USC had a chance of winning — and probably should have won. But they came down to a couple of plays: a bounce here, a make instead of a miss there. This is what separates an average team from a good team — the ability to close out games, to emerge from a tight battle victorious. In this regard, the Trojans have no consistency.
In a 69-67 win over ASU last month, senior captain Bennie Boatwright nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer in the clutch. In a 69-65 loss to Colorado Saturday, it was Boatwright and junior forward Nick Rakocevic — two team leaders — who allowed Buffaloes guard McKinley Wright to drive right past them for two crucial layups that gave Colorado the late lead.
“I don’t know why Nick and Bennie weren’t in the middle of [the] lane and hedging on the ball screen,” Enfield said. “It’s very shocking. Those guys are juniors and seniors — two big mental breakdowns in the last two minutes of the game. Not going to make excuses for them, because I can’t.”
It may have been shocking to Enfield, but, 11 games into conference play, USC’s standing is no longer a surprise to the neutral observer. USC is merely part of the group of Pac-12 teams mired in a “meh” season, one as uninspiring as the tepid crowds that have shown up at Galen Center.
So, the hell with it, Tad Boyle. Bring on the petty drama, the unnecessarily exorbitant celebrations. This Pac-12 basketball season could use some life, anyway.
Eric He is a senior writing about current events in sports. He is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.