Boogie Ellis came into the NCAA tournament playing the best stretch of basketball in his career, averaging more than 24 points over the previous seven games and looking to add some March memories before wrapping up his time with the Trojans.
Unfortunately, it didn’t play out that way for Ellis or USC on Friday morning.
No. 7-seeded Michigan State pulled away during a fairly one-sided second half for a 72-62 win in first-round NCAA tournament action in Columbus, Ohio, ending the Trojans’ season.
The loss really further underscored how much USC had relied on Ellis this season as he keyed so many of the team’s best wins. Alternately, not having him at the top of his powers proved too much to overcome in this one, as the senior guard scored just 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting while missing all 3 of his 3-point attempts.
Ellis had been held to single-digits scoring just one other time since mid-December.
“They did a good job. I let my teammates down today. I didn’t make shots. And they made things tough for me. Just team defense, jumping to the ball, being on all the gaps, pretty much,” Ellis said afterward. “… I played too fast today. I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with 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 scored 11 and Reese Dixon-Waters had 10 for the Trojans, who finish 22-11.
While Michigan State (20-12) came into the game with a priority of containing Ellis, USC wanted to negate the Spartans 3-point shooting and did manage to hold them to 5 of 14 from the perimeter.
But some of those 3s felt like daggers, led by forward Joey Hauser, who led the way with 17 points and hit 4 of 6 3s.
A pair of dunks by Carson Cooper — the second on a second-chance putback — pushed the Spartans’ lead to 49-40 with 13:43 to play and the Trojans never closed the gap. It was a 9-point game again when Hauser and Jaden Akins hit back-to-back 3s in the final 5:18.
“Unfortunately, this game did not go as planned in the second half,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “A lot of timely shot-making by Michigan State and some timely misses on our part, I thought was the difference in the game, in the second half. We also had 8 turnovers, only 3 at halftime. A few of those turnovers were self-inflicted, meaning we just turned the ball over ourselves, about three or four of them. But our guys competed and played very hard the whole game.”
While this marked USC’s third straight NCAA tournament appearance (and would be four straight if not for the cancellation of the 2020 tournament) — the longest such streak for the program since 2007-09 — it also makes two straight first-round exits for the Trojans.
And now they largely have to start fresh looking ahead to next season.
Peterson (13.9 PPG and team-high 6.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game) is out of eligibility and Ellis (17.7 PPG) is expected to take his shot at the NBA.
There’s always the unpredictability of what the transfer portal will take or bring, but excluding unexpected departures, USC will return Johnson (a team captain who averaged 9.2 PPG and 5.0 RPG) and Dixon-Waters (9.8 PPG) as guards who both took a step forward this season along with rising sophomore guard Tre White, a versatile 6-foot-7 player who averaged 9.0 PPG and 5.1 RPG). In the frontcourt, the Trojans return Morgan (their defensive anchor with 63 blocks, 7.0 PPG and 5.2 RPG) and rising 7-foot-1 sophomore Vincent Iwuchukwu.
Iwuchukwu was supposed to be a major factor this year, but between his cardiac arrest scare last summer and a back injury at the end of the season, he played in just 14 games while still looking a bit raw.
With a full, healthy offseason, there’s no telling what the former five-star prospect could deliver for USC next season.
“Without him this year, half the year, it’s been challenging,” Enfield said. “He missed the first half of the season, came back, started to play really well, got caught up in some of our defensive/offensive schemes and was out again here at the end of the year. …
“Vince being out certainly affects our team, our rotation. But that’s not an excuse why we lost. But you asked the question about Vince. He’s a big part of our program and we hope the best for him to get healthy.”
No one else on the roster averaged at least 10 minutes per game, so the likes of Kijani Wright, Oziyah Sellers, Malik Thomas, Harrison Hornery and Iaroslav Niagu are wildcards moving forward.
The big question is who truly takes over for Ellis and Peterson as the focal points of the offense?
Well, Johnson, Dixon-Waters or White could certainly take advantage of the available opportunity next season, but if the 2023-24 Trojans are going to reach peak potential then the answer needs to be five-star freshman point guard Isaiah Collier — the No. 1-ranked overall prospect in the country, out of Marietta, Ga.
Collier headlines the No. 6-ranked recruiting class in the country for the Trojans, along with four-star forward Arrinten Page (Collier’s HS teammate) and four-star guard Silas Demary Jr. — the No. 58 and 59-ranked prospects nationally.
If all of those players return, with the three freshmen coming in, USC will be at the 13-scholarship limit and have no room to take in any transfers. Though again, it’s plenty possible a spot or two opens up via a departing transfer.
But leaving aside the unknown, perhaps an ideal starting lineup for the Trojans next year would look something like this:
PG — Isaiah Collier
G — Reese Dixon-Waters
G — Kobe Johnson
F — Vincent Iwuchukwu
C — Joshua Morgan
With White, Page, Demary and one or two of the wildcards filling out the rotation.
That’s two five-star talents, the best shot-blocker in the Pac-12 and two emerging guards — including a great defensive player in Johnson — along with some high-upside options off the bench.
That group projects the potential to extend USC’s NCAA tournament streak, which is significant as the Trojans have never played in four straight NCAA tourneys (which, again, they already would have if not for the 2020 cancellation).
Enfield and his staff have made USC basketball a perennial postseason program while raising the bar on recruiting, routinely bringing in five-star talent.
As the Trojans move another year removed from their memorable Elite Eight run in 2021, though, the pressure will be on to not just get to the postseason but to have a true presence in March.