How USC overcame growing pains to become Andy Enfield’s ‘most improved team’
Ryan Kartje (LA Times) — Four months ago, long before his Trojans would secure a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, Andy Enfield walked off the court following USC’s home opener, worried about what he’d just seen.
You couldn’t have drawn up a more disastrous start for USC. A 13-point defeat at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast, Enfield’s former team, called everything about the upcoming season, his 10th as coach, into question. The new, four-guard approach fell flat. A new, youthful rotation looked lost. The two senior captains struggled. In his postgame media session, Enfield lamented their lack of preparation.
“We were not a very good team,” the coach admitted this week, looking back on the season’s start. “We could’ve played anyone that night and lost. So we were a little nervous.”
To think, by March, those same Trojans barely resemble the group that was trounced on opening night by Florida Gulf Coast, a team that ultimately finished ninth in the Atlantic Sun Conference. USC lost just one game at Galen Center the rest of the season. The Trojans won 22 total, a mark reached for the sixth time in seven years. And it sneaked into the NCAA tournament for the fifth time under Enfield, the most trips ever by a Trojans coach.
The path USC took from that disappointing night in November to Friday’s first-round matchup with Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio, sets it apart from other teams Enfield has coached at USC.
“This is probably the most improved team I’ve had at USC from the beginning of the year to the end,” Enfield declared last week.
Even before its clumsy beginning, Enfield understood this season might be an uphill climb. He had just two players he knew he could rely on in Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, and they were hardly the most reliable players at that point. Peterson was prone to erratic stretches and needed to bulk up physically, while Ellis had never proved to be a complete point guard, capable of creating for others.
But as Enfield saw it, the season hinged on how his two seniors performed. The staff put their trust in Ellis especially, opting not to bring in another point guard to push him. The vote of confidence meant a lot to the senior captain, considering his struggles at the end of the previous season.
“He didn’t go and get anyone out of the transfer portal,” Ellis said. “He trusted me and believed in my game and allowed me to really develop and be a true lead guard.”
The trust was rewarded, as Ellis developed into one of the best playmaking point guards in the country by season’s end. Over the last two months especially, Ellis has unlocked another level of his game, averaging better than 22 points over USC’s final dozen games.
But it would take more than a major leap from its point guard to turn the Trojans into a tournament team.
Kobe Johnson played just 7.5 minutes per game as a freshman, the 10th man in a 10-man rotation. He’d taken a mere 34 shots the entire previous season when Enfield plugged him into the lineup as a sophomore.
He’s been essential to USC’s rotation ever since, developing into one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball, a byproduct of the program’s patience. He’s even become a steady offensive contributor, scoring nine points per game.
“When you have good players that are young, our philosophy is you have to let them grow,” Enfield said.
That also often means giving them room to learn from their mistakes.
For Tre White, the space was critical early on. The freshman struggled to adjust upon his arrival last summer. But Enfield encouraged him to shake off the misses, to keep firing away. He tried to keep White’s confidence up, letting him work out the kinks on his own.
It wouldn’t take long for him to figure it out as White started 27 of USC’s 31 games, earning a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team.
It didn’t click as quickly for Kijani Wright (#33). The four-star freshman big man was expected to make an immediate impact, but by midseason he’d lost his place in the rotation.
So Enfield and his staff laid out the areas where Wright needed to get better in order to earn it back, all the while trying to stay positive.
“We were very specific with him,” Enfield said. “You have to be a better rebounder, you have to be a better defender. And he took that to heart.”
The staff trusted Wright to figure it out. And by March, he was playing meaningful minutes off the bench.
“Some coaches try to, like, control every little narrative,” White explained. “But I feel like with Coach Andy, he gives us guidelines but he lets us be free. I feel like that’s how we all got better. He doesn’t take our confidence away.”
Their confidence seemed to be soaring before last week’s trip to Las Vegas, when the Trojans were sent packing in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament for the first time since 2014.
The defeat was an abrupt reminder of how little room there is for error for USC this March. But considering where it was in November, no one sees any reason to stop trusting that process now.
“The start of this season, we didn’t know what type of team we were going to be,” center Josh Morgan said. “But we stuck with it. We ran the course, and we ended up finding an identity. Now, towards the end of the season, we’re a much better team than we were at the start.”
My bracket is a mess. I have a single win today so far.
Does the Big 12 still want ARIZ? 😂
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This is by far Enfield’s best job as a HC. I also love the match up in that SC is playing in B10 country against a B10 team. This will become our norm in 2 years, so best to get started. And, while being well coached, as the stats show, this team will not go far in the tournament – its big men need a lot of development. It Ellis and Peterson are BOTH hot, the team is very dangerous – if either one is cold, the team can lose to just about anyone. Hence, the odd resume of beating… Read more »
Veteran MICH ST reporter and analyst Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal — “USC’s resume has some teeth to it, but also some warts and a lot of wins in a bad year for the Pac-12. The best news for the Spartans in trying to win the weekend: USC ranks 328th in offensive rebounding, per kenpom. What a break for an MSU team whose biggest bugaboo is keeping certain opponents off the glass.” Matt Wadleigh (Trojans Wire) — “This is no secret: USC has good wins but bad losses, and giving away possessions can really hurt the Trojans. Moreover, Andy… Read more »
I would agree that after the disaster of a first home game against FGCU, the team improved steadily throughout the year. Every player seemed to step up their game, especially Boogie Ellis. The PAC-12 Tournament loss to ASU was disappointing, but ASU had beaten UofA on a last second shot before the tournament began. I hope USC brings its “A” game against MSU. I’m still bitter about the football loss to MSU in the 1988 Rose Bowl game that I attended in person, back in the day. Beat the Spartans!
That ’88 USC team, captained by effervescent Rodney Peete, was absolutely loaded. It had some of my favorite players on it, guys like Brad Leggett, tough Leroy Holt, the magical Eric Affholter, under-rated Dan Owens, Brent Parkinson, Thorpe Award winner Mark Carrier (13 career picks), Tim Ryan, Cleveland Colter, Ricky Ervins, Scott Galbraith, Scott Ross, Mark Tucker, and of course the legendary Junior Seau. The three best high school players I ever saw in person were Seau, Carson Palmer, and Matt Grootegoed. No wonder USC has had so many great seasons. USC lost two tough Rose Bowl games in both… Read more »
Allen: thank you for your kind reply and mentioning some great players that I remember watching play for USC. My 8th grade PE teacher’s son, Scott Lockwood, was on that team. I’ll always remember Scott ripping off a 60+ yard run against Ohio State 2 years later in 1990 at the HorseShoe. Scott was a versatile running back who could play both fullback and tailback.