The USC Trojans exceeding all preseason expectations in Andy Enfield's third season at the helm, turning a moribund program into one of the more entertaining teams to watch on the West Coast. The Trojans earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and won 21 games for the first time since Tim Floyd's final season in 2009.
As it had in Enfield's first two seasons, USC began with a strong record during the non-conference schedule, going 11-2, but the difference in Year 3 was the Trojans ability to compete in the Pac-12. They began 7-3 before faltering a bit in the second half of the conference schedule when they struggled away from the Galen Center. USC finished 9-9 in the Pac-12 and defeated UCLA for a third time in the conference tournament before losing to Utah.
The Trojans' NCAA Tournament appearance was brief after they let a game slip away against Providence, not making free throws down the stretch and allowing the Friars an easy basket on an out-of-bounds play. Despite the devastating loss, the season still ranked as a team that was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 before the year. It was potentially a stepping stone for Enfield's program toward bigger and brighter things.
But since the end of the year, four players have announced their intentions to transfer. While he could still return, the Trojans' most valuable player, guard Julian Jacobs, is testing the NBA Draft waters. And assistant coach Kevin Norris took another assistant job with recently fired Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins at Central Florida.
We sat down with Andy Enfield and discussed the recent departures, the season overall and how things are shaping up for the program moving forward:
USCfootball.com: Little bit of a mass departure taking place?
Andy Enfield: “I wouldn’t say that. You look around Division I basketball, there’s 700+ transfers last year and they’ll probably be about the same this year. That’s part of this business and part of the landscape of Division I basketball.
Players want the best opportunity for themselves, which is understandable. Our whole staff, we want what is best for our players. We want to set them up for success for the future while they’re having the time of their life playing college basketball. If they feel like they can be more successful elsewhere, then we’re fully supportive.
The players that are leaving this program via the transfer route are just terrific young men. We love them. We just had a great year with them. They worked hard. They had terrific attitudes. They came to practice everyday and they competed. Some played more than the others in the games, but that’s part of college basketball with the playing time and because you have a 13-man on the roster. That’s going to happen.
If you look around the country with 700 transfers at the Division I level, it usually is the result of a better opportunity at another school. I would never fault a player for deciding what’s in the best interests of their own career, of their own life. I’m fully supportive of all the guys.
With that being said, we have some terrific players returning to the team and we’re excited about the future of our program.”
USCfootball.com: Any of the transfers shock or surprise you when they came to you and said they think they can find a better opportunity?
Andy Enfield: "As I said, our staff loves all of our players as part of this team and part of our program. We care for them as people. We try to keep the lines of communication open between our staff and our players and kind of get a pulse of what is happening, a feeling.
Throughout the season, it’s hard as a head coach. You only have 200 minutes to play during the game and you have 13 players on your roster — scholarship players, not including the non-scholarship players to give you 14 or 15 players. It is difficult as a coaching staff to find the necessary minutes for everyone to be happy.
Everyone is a competitor at this level. Players and coaches. The players compete with each other. They compete against the opposition and they compete for playing time within their own program, so that’s the challenging part as a coaching staff is to try to find that balance, but with 13 players that’s very difficult."
USCfootball.com: Does it say anything about the program that you have seniors transferring out? Just more talent or…
Andy Enfield: "I’m not going to comment on our talent level, our players. All I can say is we have terrific young men in our program. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do from the offseason to conditioning and weight lifting to the preseason practices to competing during the season and they’ve all improved and they’ve come together as a team. They have great chemistry.
When anyone leaves, we’re going to miss them as people. At the same time, if they have a better opportunity elsewhere, then we’re excited for them to move on. We certainly will miss them."
USCfootball.com: How would you assess the season overall?
Andy Enfield: "As I just said, our players did everything we asked as a staff. To get to the NCAA Tournament this year with where we were last year, I thought was a terrific accomplishment for our players. They were top 20 in the nation in scoring. They were top 20 in how fast we play — possession length. They were top 15 in the nation in blocked shots. They set the school record for three-point shots made and blocked shots. Our field goal percent defense was I think third in the league and we had a lot of big wins.
To cap off the season, we had a chance to compete for a national championship in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, we lost a heart-breaking game, but for our players to improve that much and come together as a team, they did it. Our staff gives them the credit. They came here to USC to do this — to build a program. The reason why were in the NCAA Tournament is because of them.
I’m very, very proud of our players and their work ethic and their commitment to getting better. Now, we expect a huge offseason from them to go into training camp next year and have that desire to improve upon their success this year."
USCfootball.com: One aspect you are hoping to take a big jump in this offseason?
Andy Enfield: "I think each individual needs to improve — keep improving their strength and their speed quickness. Some players have to work on their lateral quickness. Some players have to become better rebounders and on offense, work really on their skill sets and their decision making with a lot of video work watching themselves play and watching other teams. Working on their offensive skills and some players have big jumps they can make.
All of our players can get better, but there are certain players that can make big, big jumps this offseason. For us, to get to where we want as a program and for those individual players to get to where they want to be, they’re going to have to work extremely hard this spring and summer."
USCfootball.com: Is there one thing that you want the team to focus on? If it was a video game, is there anything you put all of your training points toward?
Andy Enfield: "Well each player is different. As a team, I just mentioned what some of our strengths were. As individuals, like you saw Jordan McLaughlin improve his perimeter shooting big time from his freshman to sophomore years. He shot in the mid-40s from the three-point line. Same thing with Elijah Stewart.
We would like some of our guys that shot medium to lower percentage to improve on their field goal percentage, their free throw percentage. Shooting is a big part, but also when you’re talking about shooting from the field and the three-point line, you’re talking about how to create space for yourself, quickness of release, being able to put the ball on the floor and being able to finish in the lane.
There’s a lot of things that go into it offensively and then our bigger guys, we’d like them to finish in the lane and back to the basket and also face up as far out as the three-point line. There’s a lot of room for improvement that needs to be done, but that’s part of the development of these guys that are still young in their career, they have a big upside."
USCfootball.com: Lose some toughness with transfer of Darion Clark. Is toughness and physicality a mentality or do you have to get some bigger guys to come in?
Andy Enfield: "We’re not getting bigger guys to come in. Our returning players know what has to be done to get to the next level. They were ranked 31st by the NCAA committee when they seeded the teams so they were an eight-seed in the tournament. They were in the top 25 a few times this year. We played a really tough schedule.
They understand what it takes to be a legitimate top 20 team or top 25 team all season long. If they put the time in, they’ll get there. I have no doubt that if they can have a big offseason, we’ll be right there in the mix of teams around the country that can beat anyone on a given night. Not to say that we’re going to be the best team in the Pac-12 or a guaranteed NCAA Tournament team. But what I’m trying to say is that if our players improve and they have a desire to do something more than we did this year, then we should be in a great position this season.
There are certainly no guarantees. Just because we had 21 wins and we were in the NCAA Tournament this year doesn’t mean we’re going to be back in it next year. We’re telling our players loud and clear that just because you did something this year, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen next year. In college basketball, there are so many good players out there. There’s so many good teams and especially in the Pac-12. The whole league is going to be great again next season. We’re not taking anything for granted.
That’s the biggest message we have as a staff to our players. We are not taking anything for granted and you have to work for what you get. Just like they did this year. They made up their minds that they didn’t want to have a tough season. They wanted to compete for a league championship and they did for most of the season until the end when we lost a few games. Then they wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament and at least compete for a national championship.
We are not making any predictions for next year, even though I think we can be a better team, a more consistent team next season if our guys improve, but that’s a big 'if' because our players have to go do it. They’re going to have to make the jump this offseason and come into training camp next year with the desire to be a more consistent and polished team."
USCfootball.com: Can this team compete for a Pac-12 title next year?
Andy Enfield: "I think every team’s goal is to compete for a league title and a national championship. I’m sure that will be our goal just like 350 other teams in this country. Whether we can or can’t, that’s why you play 18 league games and you have a conference tournament. This league is really good. You saw that in the second half of the year when we go on the road. It’s tough winning on the road. It’s tough winning at home let alone on the road in this league. But we’re excited about the chance to improve as a team."
USCfootball.com: What’s the next step in development for this team?
Andy Enfield: "I think the next step is a level of consistency. You saw most of our games this year, if not all of them. We were extremely, extremely talented and streaky at times. For a 10-minute stretch or a five-minute stretch, we played great basketball on both ends of the floor. Then we would become a little streaky and then we would pick it up again and then we would be a little streaky and make some mistakes. I’m sure we’re not a lot different than most teams in this country last year with being a little streaky at times.
We were good enough to win some games. I think with maturity and the improvement of some of our players, the goal will be a more consistent and polished team throughout the entire season and eliminate some of the decision-making mistakes or some of the rebounding mistakes. You brought up toughness, but rebounding is a skill too. There are a lot of areas of the game where we can get a little better at. If you become a little better at quite a few areas, it means your team is going to become better in the long run."
USCfootball.com: With losing five guys and potentially six (Julian Jacobs), are you concerned about being inexperienced again?
Andy Enfield: "[shakes head] You only need to play five guys at once. We have tremendous experience coming back. We’ve signed three talented freshmen and we have a transfer in Shaqquan Aaron that has been sitting out with the team all year. There’s only 200 minutes to go around. We feel great about our young players and that’s why this offseason is so important to them to keep improving."
USCfootball.com: If Julian Jacobs decides not to come back, do you change the system? Do you go to a Jordan McLaughlin-led attack rather than two-point guard system?
Andy Enfield: "I think that’s to be determined. As a coaching staff, you try to evaluate once you know your final roster. You try to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and see what type of lineup or rotation is most effective. We have plenty of time to try to figure that out. With the NBA Draft, there’s a little uncertainty about our roster, but we’ll figure that out once we know our final roster."
USCfootball.com: Is Shaqquan Aaron ready to make an impact on the defensive end as well?
Andy Enfield: "Shaqquan is a worker and he has a huge opportunity staring him in the face. He is talented. He’s quick. He has long arms. He understands the game, so he’s one of those guys that can make a big jump on our roster this offseason. He hasn’t played in a game in over a year, a year and a half, so I’m sure he’s going to be excited to play and play in games come November next year."
USCfootball.com: How difficult is losing Kevin Norris, who came with you from Florida Gulf Coast? What direction are you looking to fill that assistant coaching vacancy?
- Kevin did a terrific job for us the last three seasons. He’s moving on to a unique and great opportunity for him as an individual to be with Johnny Dawkins at Central Florida to get back close to his family and he’s got a great opportunity. I feel the same way about our assistant coaches and our staff as I do our players. When people can move on to opportunities they feel is better for their future long term then I’m all for it.
Kevin has been loyal. He’s done a great job with our players. He’s just been an outstanding assistant coach for us. We’re going to miss him and we wish him the best. Hopefully, he can help Johnny Dawkins build that program at UCF like he helped build our program at USC. As far as his replacement, we’re looking to bring in a coach that can do multiple things."
USCfootball.com: What did you take away from the NCAA tournament?
Andy Enfield: "What a great ending that was [to the championship game]. That’s why they call it March Madness. The whole tournament was spectacular.
I’m sure people enjoyed watching our game. We didn’t really enjoy watching the replay, but that’s why March Madness is such a fun event to watch. It’s competition at the highest level, win or go home and it just has the unpredictability of college basketball and sports in general. When you have 68 teams to start it and you come down to a championship game like we saw on Monday night, that’s what makes this tournament so special.
That’s why just getting there — even though we lost in the first round — the energy and the excitement is something that if you’ve ever played in or coached in, you never forget."
USCfootball.com: Anything you take away from how the games played out or overarching themes?
Andy Enfield: "I think every year as a coaching staff, we try to learn and pick up different concepts as a team whether it’s offense or defense or special situations or maybe the style of play. We try in the offseason, we use this as a time to learn and try to discuss what could be effective for our own roster that we’ve seen.
Not everything that other teams do fits on your own roster because your players are different and your system might be a little different. We’ll probably look at a lot of games on our video and pick and choose what we want to try to implement into our practice plans and into our system."