USC hoops: the next step

In which we answer the question: Can USC hoops make the move up in Year 4 of the Andy Enfield Era?

When you think about it, it’s pretty audacious. How many college athletic programs can be good, really good, someone-to-contend-with-nationally good, in both major sports?

And yet, here we are, thinking that USC basketball could take the big step up and join a football program that thanks to its history, tradition, location and the talent here for a new staff, is ready to do that.

It’s USC, after all. Even with an unproven football coach many think just may be able to pull it all together. He does have a chance.

But basketball? Really? How can anyone expect a program that almost never was, and then was sabotaged from inside and out, to take any sort of steps into a place it’s never been? And with a coach who’s also never been there either?

Is any of that even possible? Or is it just sunshine-pumping sensationalism?

It Is possible, as crazy as that may be to say. Especially in a time when the number of top football-basketball schools is shrinking.

And for us, it feels like déjà vu all over again. Been there. Done that. Tried to tell the folks at Kentucky that they had the chance, if they did everything right, as the northernmost program in the SEC, if only they returned to their roots recruiting Ohio and Pennsylvania the way Bear Bryant did when he was coaching there and took them to the top. Do that and UK had a chance in football, we said.

And they did some things. We banged on them to enclose in the stadium and get it close to 70,000 and they did. But the coaching hires were iffy. And no matter the talent levels in any year, the Kentucky fan base never did believe they could compete with the Georgias, Floridas, Auburns, Tennessees and LSU’s in their league, much less Alabama.

And that may have mattered more than anything. They knew basketball was coming and everything would be right in their world. And nothing could change their minds. They have a coach today in football, Mark Stoops, the third of the Stoops coaching family, who is 12-24 overall in three seasons (4-20 in the SEC) but he has a $16 million buyout so he’s as bulletproof as Steve Alford is at UCLA.

Neither of those programs ever made a real effort to get there in both sports. And you can see why. It’s really tough. Ohio State and Texas once were there. No more -- although OSU hoops doesn’t have far to go to get back. Florida was there not long ago. But the Gators are gone now.

The way things are these days, it seems no one in the SEC will get back there any time soon. Hoops is history. Worse than the Pac-12.

Notre Dame is making a move to get it going in both sports with Mike Brey in hoops who gives hope to coaches coming of age if not right away. We’d put the Irish in that small number.

Michigan State has maybe done the best football-basketball job in recent years and you have to give Oregon credit. They’re the one Pac-12 program making the commitment right now.

Put Oklahoma in that mix. Baylor has been close but not quite. But that’s pretty much it. You can be good in one or the other. Not both.

Stanford does the entire sports program thing well but basketball there, despite that 20-point win over USC, is looking for a new coach after Johnny Dawkins was dismissed at the end of the season.

So is it even fair to ask USC to go there? Or even suggest that it could? Or have any demands or expectations for the program like we have for football right now? After all, there are so many reasons why they shouldn’t. We can list them here but you all know them.

Sure, they were terrible a year ago despite playing seven of the top nine players from this year’s 23-win club. And now this year’s team has done great because it won way more games than anyone thought based on how bad it played last season. So as much good as we say about it, it’s not something that can be balanced out with criticism.

None of that, we’re told. Other coaches? Yeah, criticize them. UCLA’s Alford? He’s giving back his contract extension basically as a result of his three whippings by the Trojans. USC fans can’t get enough of Alford and his local recruiting misses. And rightly can’t say enough good things about the coach who inflicted so much pain on the Bruins.

And yes, Andy Enfield– and maybe his opposite Alford – are the main reasons there’s a chance for this USC basketball program right now. It’s in the middle of the nation’s top recruiting territory with a relatively new arena a mile and a half down the road from two NBA franchises at a sensationally cool school in a conference where it can compete.

Andy has shown he can recruit. He’s a smart guy. A good guy. A nice person. Now the question is, as the question we have for Clay Helton: Can he coach at the level we think the USC program can play at?

Can he lead a program? Can he be tough enough? Decisive and disciplined in games that matter when one single right play or call – even with seven bad ones in the final two minutes – could be the difference between moving on and going home.

Can he inspire the kind of confidence players need and take strength from when they head to a huddle at the end of a game that determines their season?

Can he build a staff. Coaching AAU stars is probably harder than recruiting them. Does USC need a big man assistant to help here? Or a veteran X’s and O’s guy next to Andy to bring a different perspective to the mix? Maybe.

But saying they beat so and so in November when you didn’t think they were any good isn’t the answer. Andy has put together an interestingly talented team. The Trojans have length, they can shoot it from out, they can take it to the glass and play above the rim, they can beat people in transition, they can block shots and create turnovers – at times, anyway -- and they have the depth to do so for much of the game if not the strength.

But can they figure out how to get the game to where they have the edge? This is the question for a coach whose staff has solved so many of the recruiting issues they were left with. Sure, the “dumpster fire” characterization of Kevin O’Neill’s leaving is on the money.

But they did have All-Pac-12 guard Julian Jacobs on the way along with Nikola Jovanovich. Not a bad start. Enfield & Co. filled that out to where no team in the Pac-12 has a deeper well of talent.

That’s why we think USC basketball has a chance. As does Andy. There are expectations now, not excuses. And that’s a very good thing.

And pointing any of this out isn’t really personal. It comes with the territory. As Tim Floyd found out early in Demar DeRozan’s freshman season when we complained that if he was going to recruit a player like Demar, who could run and score with anyone in the country, he wasn’t doing anybody any favors by making him stand around in the halfcourt the way that season started out.

Nothing personal. That’s what we’re supposed to do. So if we say this USC team looked uncoached at times, too many times, there’s nothing wrong with that. It did. Check out opposing fan boards if you doubt it.

But unless you think this USC program doesn’t matter much, and what happens happens and no way anyone should have expectations because, well, because it’s USC. Well that’s wrong.

When USC convinced two Top 50 prospects, Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, to come here last year, the Trojans coaches knew their considerable ability needed lots of developing. Did anyone in the country recruit two 6-10-plus players with more upside? Kentucky didn’t.

Did it happen? Here and there. Not with enough consistency even for freshmen. But it has to happen next season. USC owes it to them.

And nothing says Andy can’t figure it out with his players. If we were the USC AD, we’d be giving Andy a raise and some recommendations.

Does this team need to come back with an intensity injection and a focus, and proof that its collective basketball IQ has improved considerably now that it will be two years removed from its “youngest team in the country” designation? You bet.

Does it need an identity? That thing that tells you who you are and how you win the toughest games? It does.

Do they need to become much tougher physically and mentally, much more together, much better defending man to man, much more concerned with defensive rebounding and the footwork and body control and the anticipation that takes? Of course.

Is this beating a dead horse? We hope not. And we hope that in saying this, we don’t get it translated to how we think USC needs a new coach. They need some new coaching. Nothing wrong with that observation. They do. And they can get that if Andy only will do what this season showed he must.

If this season is as good as it gets for USC, then no biggie. But if this program is to become something special, which it can be with these players and then building from that, then it must improve.

And in a college basketball world ruled by the likes of Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, Lon Krueger, John Calipari, Jay Wright, Tony Bennett, Mark Few and Dana Altman, it comes down the coach.

So after this year’s bounce by the Trojans, we’d like to see Andy make a move up in the direction of the above coaches. Anyone who cares about USC would.

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