Four months ago, long before his Trojans secured a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, Andy Enfield walked off the court after USC’s home opener, troubled by what he had just seen.
You couldn’t have plotted a more disastrous start for USC. A 13-point loss at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast, Enfield’s former team, cast doubt on everything about the upcoming season, his 10th as manager. The new approach of four guards failed. A new, youthful rotation seemed lost. The two older captains fought. In his post-game press session, Enfield lamented his lack of preparation.
“We weren’t a very good team,” the coach admitted this week, recalling the start of the season. “We could have played anyone that night and lost. So we were a little nervous.”
And to think, back in March, those same Trojans barely resemble the group that was blown out on opening night by the 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 overall, a mark reached for the sixth time in seven years. And he snuck into the NCAA tournament for the fifth time with Enfield, the most trips by a Trojans coach.
The path USC took from that disappointing November night 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 of the year,” Enfield declared last week.
Even before his clumsy start, Enfield understood that this season could be an uphill climb. He only had two players he knew he could trust: Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, and they weren’t the most reliable players at the time. Peterson was prone to erratic stretching and needed to increase physically, while Ellis never proved to be a complete point guard, capable of creating for others.
But as Enfield saw it, the season depended on how his two seniors performed. The staff put their trust especially in Ellis, 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 anybody out of the transfer portal,” Ellis said. “He trusted me and he believed in my game and he allowed me to really develop and be a true leading point guard.”
The confidence was rewarded, as Ellis became one of the best point guards in the country by the end of the season. In the past two months especially, Ellis has unlocked another level of his game, averaging more than 22 points over USC’s last dozen games.
But it would take more than a big leap from their 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 had taken just 34 shots all season before when Enfield brought him into the lineup as a sophomore.
He’s been essential to USC’s rotation ever since, becoming one of the best defenders on the ball in college basketball, a byproduct of the program’s patience. He has even become a consistent offensive contributor, scoring nine points per game.
“When you have good players who are young, our philosophy is that you have to let them grow,” Enfield said.
That also often means giving them space to learn from their mistakes.
For Tre White, space was critical from the start. The freshman struggled to adjust to his arrival last summer. But Enfield encouraged him to shake off the mistakes, to keep shooting. He tried to keep White’s confidence high, letting him solve problems on his own.
It wouldn’t take long for him to figure it out as White started 27 of USC’s 31 games, earning himself a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team.
It didn’t click as quickly for Kijani Wright. The four-star freshman big man was expected to make an immediate impact, but by midseason he had lost his place in the rotation.
So Enfield and his staff laid out the areas where Wright needed to improve to get him back, 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 it very seriously.
The staff trusted Wright to figure it out. And by March, he was playing significant minutes off the bench.
“Some coaches try to control every little narrative,” White explained. “But I feel like with Coach Andy, he gives us guidelines but lets us be free. I feel like this is how we all get better. He doesn’t take away our trust.”
His confidence seemed soaring ahead of last week’s trip to Las Vegas, when the Trojans were sent to the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament for the first time since 2014.
The loss was a stark reminder of how little room for error there is for USC in March. But considering where it was in November, no one sees any reason to stop trusting that process now.
“At the start of this season, we didn’t know what kind of team we were going to be,” center Josh Morgan said. “But we stayed with that. We did the course and ended up finding an identity. Now, towards the end of the season, we are a much better team than at the beginning.”