The 5 best USC men’s basketball teams of all time – Trojans Wire

On this day — Sunday, March 14 — the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket will be revealed. It’s time to see what the 2021 USC Trojans can achieve in the Big Dance. Where will Evan Mobley and Company rank among the best Trojan teams ever? We will soon find out.

USC has rarely had a higher national profile coming into an NCAA Tournament. Yes, the 1992 team had a No. 2 seed. The 2002 team was a No. 4 seed coming off an Elite Eight appearance the year before in 2001. Yes, the 2008 team had O.J. Mayo and was coming off a Sweet 16 in 2007. A few times, USC did have an elevated profile… but not that many.

This year, with Evan Mobley on the roster, the Trojans have a high-profile player and a high-profile seed which gives them — at the very least — a chance to leave a significant imprint on March Madness.

To mark this important occasion, let’s look back at the five best USC men’s basketball teams of all time.

Keep in mind: “Best” and “most successful” are not the same thing. For example, the most successful Arizona men’s basketball team of all time is, of course, the 1997 national championship team. Yet, that team was a No. 4 seed which struggled at various points during the regular season and the NCAA Tournament. Arizona has fielded far better and more talented teams in its illustrious basketball history.

So, when looking at USC’s best teams ever, the 2001 Elite Eight team — while rightly belonging in the discussion — isn’t a lock to be on this final list of five teams. There are contentious and not-very-tidy debates to be had about the No. 5 team on this list. The top four, however, seems relatively clear-cut.

Read below and feel free to leave a comment on the @TrojansWire Twitter page. Enjoy March Madness!

5. 2007 (SWEET 16)

SPOKANE, WA – MARCH 18: Kevin Durant #35 of the Texas Longhorns dribbles the ball near the sideline against Dwight Lewis #15 of the USC Trojans during the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Spokane Memorial Arena on March 18, 2007 in Spokane, Washington. USC reached the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1961. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The 2001 USC Trojans were more successful than the 2007 team was. The 2001 team went to the Elite Eight, whereas the 2007 team made the Sweet 16.

The 2002 USC men’s basketball team was a No. 4 seed, while the 2007 team was a No. 5 seed.

One can make the argument that the 2007 Trojans don’t belong in this top five. Yet, the argument on behalf of this team is compelling.

Unlike 2002, the 2007 team had a solid NCAA Tournament by making the second weekend. If the 2002 team had at least beaten UNC Wilmington in the first round, it would have a much stronger argument to make against the 2007 team. As things stand, it doesn’t.

The real conversation is between 2007 and 2001.

The 2007 Trojans knocked out Kevin Durant — an all-time-great player — in the second round. That’s a far greater achievement than the 2001 team beating Boston College in the second round. Moreover, the 2007 USC team didn’t just beat Durant and Texas; the Tim Floyd-coached Trojans crushed the Longhorns in a stunning result few people anticipated.

Both 2007 and 2001 USC played a No. 1 seed and a blue blood from the ACC. The 2007 Trojans faced North Carolina, while the 2001 team faced Duke. Both teams played competitive games before losing by 10 points. However, 2007 USC led North Carolina and outplayed the Tar Heels for a portion of the game before foul trouble (and some questionable whistles) came into play. Yes, the 2001 team beat second-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16. That’s a checkmark for the 2001 group. Yet, on balance, the 2007 team played slightly better within the NCAA Tournament.

4. 1992 (NO. 2 SEED)

Jan 30, 1991; Los Angeles, CA, USA: FILE PHOTO; Southern California Trojans guard Harold Miner (23) in action against the UCLA Bruins at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Long Photography-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament was first seeded in 1979. USC has never been seeded higher than it was in 1992, when it grabbed a No. 2 seed. Harold Miner led the Trojans to the top tier of the Pac-10. UCLA, a No. 1 seed, won the league (the Don MacLean team which lost to Indiana in the Elite Eight), but USC soared to a great height under Miner and head coach George Raveling, who took a second Pac-10 team to the Big Dance after leading Washington State to Bracketville years earlier.

The loss to Georgia Tech on a last-second buzzer-beater has been a March Madness highlight reel for decades, but the 1992 team still owns a special place in USC hoops history.

3. 1974 (24-5 RECORD)

USC alumnus and Seattle Supersonics guard Gus Williams (1) against the Milwaukee Bucks. Williams helped USC’s 1974 team go 24-5. Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Network.

The Bob Boyd years at USC created multiple great teams. This is the one which gets forgotten about. USC lost only five times. Had the NCAA Tournament been a 64-team event (which began in 1985), USC would have been a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Yet, in 1974, the NCAA field was just 25 teams. Any team in a conference had to win its conference in order to make the field. Independents such as Marquette (which made the 1974 NCAA Tournament national championship game) had more flexibility in terms of making the tournament, but conference teams were still boxed in at the time: championship or NIT, with no middle ground.

College basketball historians will note that in 1974, the North Carolina State-Maryland ACC Tournament final, a classic game, magnified the unfairness of prohibiting the losing team from being able to play in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina State went on to win the NCAA national title, but Maryland — a No. 1 seed-caliber group and one of the best Maryland teams ever — was not allowed to play in the tournament.

The next year, the NCAA field moved from 25 to 32 teams, with a few at-large bids allowed.

By 1979, the NCAA Tournament field had expanded to 40. In 1980, the field was expanded to 48. In 1983, the field increased to 52, and in 1985, the 64-team bracket we have come to love came into being. Maryland was the team which most centrally led the NCAA to expand its tournament, but 1974 USC was part of that story, too.

2. 1940 (FINAL FOUR, 20-3 RECORD)

A general view of the statue of former Kansas Jayhawks head coach Phog Allen at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Phog Allen’s 1940 KU team beat USC and Sam Barry in a razor-close Final Four national semifinal. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports\

USC has two Final Four teams. The 1954 team under coach Forrest Twogood somehow reached the Final Four despite a dozen losses heading into the NCAA Tournament. USC’s first Final Four team won and won and won. The Trojans, under program architect and basketball icon Sam Barry, went 10-2 in the Pacific Coast Conference and maintained a high standard of play from Game 1 to Game 23. USC lost 43-42 to Phog Allen and Kansas in the Final Four semifinals; no USC men’s hoops team has come closer to winning the NCAA championship.

1. 1971 (24-2, ONLY LOSSES TO UCLA)

USC Trojans guard Paul Westphal in action against Houston Cougars. Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to the 1974 team, the 1971 USC Trojans would have been a very high seed in today’s NCAA Tournament. The difference: Whereas the 1974 team would have been a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, the 1971 team would have been a No. 1 seed, quite possibly the No. 2 overall seed in the whole tournament. Yet, second-place teams in conferences weren’t allowed inside the door. Paul Westphal and his Trojan teammates were locked outside. Coach Bob Boyd didn’t get the chance to lead this team into March Madness. It’s a shame.

USC’s only losses in 1971 were to the dynastic power at UCLA. The Men of Troy beat everyone else in their path. This team was even more dominant and successful in the regular season than the 1940 team was. It’s painfully unlucky that two of USC’s five best teams of all time coexisted with the John Wooden empire at UCLA. That doesn’t change the 1971 team’s place as USC’s best ever in men’s basketball.

Read our 3-part series on the 1971 Trojans:

Trojan moments: 1971, Part 1 – USC’s best basketball team ever

Trojan moments: 1971, part 2 – the most defining season in USC history

Trojan moments: 1971, part 3 – what one season revealed about USC

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