Whicker: USC’s Andy Enfield shows how to survive and thrive
Hiring Enfield didn’t seem like a bright idea for a while, but Trojans are on track to sustain an excellent program
Mark Whicker (OC Register) — In his first two seasons at USC, he went 6-31 in the Pac-12. That often doesn’t get you a third season.
He has braved injuries and late-season slumps. His assistant coach was sentenced to two years’ probation over a $1,400 payment to a prospect. He has had to cook up new teams from scratch. And his breakthroughs have created fewer L.A. headlines than whatever Clay Helton did or didn’t do on National Signing Day.
Andy Enfield has survived all that. Now, in Season Eight, he advances.
On Sunday, the Trojans play Oregon in the NCAA Tournament’s regional semifinals. Enfield knows the terrain. In 2014, his Florida Gulf Coast team knocked off San Diego State and Georgetown. Enfield became the Coach Du Jour and USC hired him.
There were days, and years, when it seemed a mistake to almost everyone but to the eerily confident Enfield. Now the Trojans are what he thought they could be. They have won at least 22 games in four of their past five seasons.
“He’s gotten to the point where our fans can have something to look forward to every season,” said Jim Hefner, the assistant to Bob Boyd in the days when USC was often nationally ranked.
USC basketball is generally better than you think, better than even some USC people think. This is their ninth NCAA tournament trip in this century. There are also nine NBA players from USC, including DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, and seven first-round picks since 2000.
When Harold Miner was rocking the early ’90s, the fans found the Sports Arena with no problem. Now, Galen Center is a jewelbox, there are Division I-ready players at every freeway exit, and a tradition is beginning to form. Why shouldn’t USC do this, or something like this, every year?
Tim Floyd appeared ready to answer that but was derailed by scandal. Henry Bibby was 2-2 in 2004-05 and Mike Garrett impulsively fired him. Rick Majerus took the job, then left to care for his dying mother.
The only permanent aspect to USC basketball was the cloud overhead.
Athletic director Pat Haden and his assistant, Steve Lopes, were impressed by the Florida Gulf Coast story and the buzz therein. But it’s dangerous to hire a coach based on one weekend.
Wichita State hired Gregg Marshall after Winthrop beat Notre Dame, and it worked. Illinois hired John Groce, and Washington hired Andy Russo, after those coaches jolted the tournament at Ohio and Louisiana Tech (with Karl Malone). Those did not work.
It looked worse because USC had hired Enfield over Mike Hopkins, the ebullient Mater Dei grad who was the heir apparent to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Hopkins took over Washington in 2017-18 and went 48-22 in two seasons. Now the Huskies have spent two years in the Pac-12 basement.
Enfield detailed a long-range plan for Haden and Lopes, who told his boss, “He’s playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.”
Still, USC was hemorrhaging pawns until it assembled a local nucleus of Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and Chimeze Metu. Enfield got to the tournament in his third year.
The hardest shot was 2018, when Boatwright got hurt late and DeAnthony Melton was ruled ineligible. The Trojans had an RPI rating of 34 and finished second in the Pac-12, went 25-8 and still missed the NCAA boat.
“Coach Enfield has a lot of strengths,” said Jonah Mathews, whose last act as a Trojan was a game-winning shot against UCLA in Galen last March.
“But most of all he lets you play free, which is big for kids in college. He lets you play through mistakes. He’s also very sociable and approachable. You can go to him about anything life-related.
“Their coaching staff is one of the best in the world, from recruiting to player development. I wanted to be a part of it. If you can defend and play hard, you can play for Coach Enfield.”
One criticism that sticks is the generally weak nonleague schedule, which stifles attendance and has hurt USC on Selection Sundays. But there are few other nits to pick.
“They’re up there on the level with UCLA, Oregon and Arizona and sometimes people don’t realize how tough that is,” said Dana Pagett, a star on Boyd’s best teams. “Andy’s done a good job. I just wish the fans had gotten the chance to see this team play.”
Another team is on the way. It says so, right there in the program.
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