LOS ANGELES — No one should have been surprised that Andy Enfield eventually got things rolling at USC.
As far as I know, the man has succeeded everywhere he’s been in life. He was an All-American at Division III Johns Hopkins and is still the NCAA’s record-holder for career free throw shooting percentage. He parlayed that into becoming a shooting coach for NBA players and, just three years removed from college, an assistant on an NBA coaching staff. He left the NBA to join a New York City startup that is now worth “significantly more” than $100 million before returning to the college ranks, eventually landing a gig as FGCU’s coach and, two years after being hired at a school with zero basketball pedigree, became the first man to steer a No. 15 seed to the Sweet 16.
Should I mention that he also found a way to marry a woman that once graced the cover of Maxim magazine’s swimsuit issue despite taking her to Taco Bell on their first date?
Betting against a résumé like that is silly, particularly when the man with that résumé was taking over the second-biggest program in one of the nation’s most fertile, talent-rich recruiting grounds. And that is why, in a vacuum, a 21-13 season, a .500 year in the Pac-12 and a first round NCAA tournament exit in year three of the Enfield Experiment is about on par with what the expectation should have been on Day 1.
But USC’s success last season did catch people by surprise, including me, because of the way his tenure got started. USC won just 23 games in Enfield’s first two years, including a paltry 5-31 mark in Pac-12 play, as he first dealt with a roster of full of cast-offs from different programs and players he didn’t recruit, and then fielded the youngest high-major team in the country, featuring just a single rotation player that wasn’t a freshmen or sophomore.
He entered the year squarely on the hot seat, with Trojan fans questioning whether they needed to make a change, and ended the season as a coach that some thought could ditch SoCal for a better job.
Perhaps the most promising thing about USC was they were thought to be “a year away”.
Everyone on the roster was slated to return, and for the first time at USC, Enfield would have a senior in his rotation that hadn’t transferred into the program.
How, then, could the program end up in the exact same position just a year later?
According to Enfield, the reason for USC’s sudden resurgence during 2015-16 was simple: The work his coaching staff did developing the players in the program paid off.
That’s who he is at this point in his career. He’s not one to try and cover himself in glory, and he’s already been burned by the same virality that made him famous in the first place; just months into his time at USC, Enfield took a shot at former USC head coach Tim Floyd at a luncheon with boosters that a reporter for Men’s Journal attended. Enfield’s quotes, meant to fire up the people that financially support his program, were made public, and less than a week later the two had an altercation at a reception for the Battle 4 Atlantis.
So he’s not going to tell you, after sweeping three games against UCLA, that the balance of power in LA has shifted from the Bruins to the Trojans the same way that the Lakers have become a lottery stalwart while watching the Clippers turn into a perennial playoff team. And he’s not going to put any weight on a four-overtime win over Arizona beyond saying that the Trojans could have “lost that game ten times” and “would have had no chance of winning that the year before.”
Instead, he credits his coaching staff, which he hired because of the relationships they already have in the local recruiting scene, and he praises the guys currently on his roster. His staff found the talent, they convinced that talent to come to USC and then developed that talent to the point that his team was able to win games at this rate.
Listen to Enfield talk, and you’ll wonder just what it is that he does to earn his salary.
That’s coach-speak at its finest, an art that Enfield is slowly-but-surely mastering, but there is a key point that he makes about this group: They weren’t as bad as their record indicated in 2014-15. They lost nine league games by single digits that year, including a nine-game losing streak early in league play where seven of those losses were by less than ten points. That’s not only a tough hole to dig out of, it’s a tough mental hurdle to clear.
“It is challenging when you feel like you’re improving your program but the wins haven’t come yet,” he said, which is why he credits three tough, early wins — over Monmouth, New Mexico and Wichita State — for setting a tone for the season and why that four-overtime win over Arizona was so important. There’s an added level of mental fortitude required to win close games, a confidence that comes with knowing you are going to execute in the clutch, and it took some time and a little bit of luck for a young Trojan team to get there.
And it also may have cost Enfield a shot at having a Pac-12 title contender.
In 2016-17, for the first time in his USC tenure, Enfield should have had a deep, veteran roster, but those veterans knew that as well. They knew that players like Bennie Boatright and Chimezie Metu, rising sophomore bigs with NBA potential that were targeted by Enfield’s staff the minute he landed in LA, would be getting major minutes and that they, the elder-statesmen, would not. Darion Clark, who was eligible to be a graduate transfer, left for Grand Canyon, where he will feature in their front court. Malik Martin, a rising junior that was the fourth front court player on the depth chart, transferred to South Florida where he can expect to have a much larger role after sitting out a season. Guard Malik Marquetti did the same, heading to Louisiana.
Then the Trojans lost Katin Reinhardt to Marquette. Reinhardt was a part time starter as a junior after leading the team in scoring as a sophomore. As one source close to the program put it, “he wanted to go score 25 a game somewhere.” It’s not that he didn’t want to win, per se, it’s that he wanted to win in a place where he was the star, not playing behind a kid two years his junior.
With four players slated to play a role off the bench gone, USC was suddenly without much depth or experience on their bench.
And things would get only get worse for the Trojans.
Rising senior Julian Jacobs, an all-Pac 12 lead guard that averaged 11.6 points and a team-high 5.5 assists, announced that he would be leaving the program and declaring for the NBA Draft despite not getting invited to the combine, giving him very little hope of being drafted. Then, on May 25th, the final day that underclassmen could put their name in the draft, rising senior center Nikola Jovanovic, USC’s second-leading scorer and best rebounder, told the staff he would be turning pro.
Like Jacobs, he didn’t have much of a chance to get drafted, but that didn’t stop him from leaving. Jacobs (Lakers) and Jovanovic (Pistons) both landed in NBA training camps, although it would be an upset if either make the cut.
What that means for USC is that they’re, once again, back to being a year away.
That doesn’t mean their isn’t talent on the roster. Jordan McLaughlin, who averaged 13.4 points and 4.9 assists last season, is one of the most underrated point guards in the country. Metu, an athletic five-man that has bulked up to 230 pounds and added a 15-footer, and Boatright, who couldn’t be a more perfect fit as a stretch four in an uptempo, small-ball system, should both take significant steps forward this season. Elijah Stewart shot 42.6 percent from three last season.
That’s not bad for a core, but it’s also a list of two juniors and two sophomores that happen to make up the entirety of USC’s roster that played in a USC uniform last season. Technically speaking, Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron is a returner as well, having spent last year as a redshirt practice player.
Beyond that, USC will roster four freshmen and a grad transfer that struggled to get consistent minutes at Minnesota.
Once again, the only senior on USC’s roster will be a player that transferred into the program. And once again, USC’s staff will be tasked with developing talent at warp speed.
“The bulk of our rotation is freshmen and sophomores and two juniors,” Enfield said. “That development part is crucial. We’re not getting LeBron James walking in here, playing for a year and leaving. We’re getting talented players that need to develop.”
Which is why, for the second straight season, USC is still a year away from hitting their peak.
“In this business,” Enfield said, “if you’re too far away, good things usually don’t happen.”