When USC lost six players with eligibility remaining after last season, some feared that the Trojans' brief resurgence would be short lived.
In his third season, Andy Enfield had led the Trojans to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. But the post-season exodus left plenty of questions about the 2016-17 season. A potential preseason top 25 team was now facing somewhat having to start all over. Once again, USC was having to rely on young players and had some depth concerns.
As it had in each of Enfield's tenures, the Trojans began the year with a strong non-conference record. USC started a perfect 14-0 and won its first Pac-12 game before getting a rude awakening at Oregon. The Trojans faced some tough trials in conference play, but came away with their winning record in the Pac-12 since 2011 and claimed a win over a top 10 UCLA team thanks to a great gameplan designed by assistants Tony Bland and Martin Bahar.
The Trojans just barely got into the NCAA tournament despite 24 wins. They were sent to Dayton for the First Four where they avenged last season's NCAA tournament loss to Providence. USC had to travel to Tulsa where it faced a top 15 SMU team for the second time. A second win over the Mustangs set a USC school record with 26 wins.
In its season finale, USC rallied from a double-digit deficit as had become its calling card and led No. 3-seed Baylor by four points only for the Bears to rally and take the four-point victory.
Since the end of the season, it has been speculated and debated whether USC will lose multiple underclassmen once again this season with Chimezie Metu having a breakthrough season and fellow sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright also potentially eyeing an early departure for the NBA. The Trojans also had assistant Jason Hart reportedly get offered a position at Washington and Tony Bland interview for UC Santa Barbara's head coach vacancy. Hart chose to stick with the Trojans while Bland is still be under consideration to become a head coach.
We talked with USC associate head coach Tony Bland about the 2016-17 season overall and how the future is shaping up both for the program and himself:
USCfootball.com: What are your overall impressions of the season?
Tony Bland: "I think it was a successful season. We won 26 games, which is the most in USC history and we lost six guys. We were expecting to kind of re-build this year and our veterans came back better than expected and our young guys came in the door better than expected, so we just want to continue to build on it."
USCfootball.com: What areas do you want to address in the offseason?
Tony Bland: "Just overall, we want to get bigger and stronger. When you watch the teams that are still playing, all of them look like they have been in college for 15 years. That's how strong and aggressive they are. You know we do a great job with our strength program, but you know we want to continue to build on that. We had the 330est youngest team in the country this year, so obviously some of these teams are older and more mature. We just want to continue to build on our overall physicality and just continue to improve in every area. You know everybody on our team has got something they can improve at, things they can improve on. We just want our team to progress and get better."
USCfootball.com: Do you think USC is going to have to rebuild again next year or are you going to have some depth?
Tony Bland: "I don't know, man. Obviously, we've got a couple guys who are going to "test the waters." Hopefully, they'll have a chance to live their dreams and make it to the NBA, but if not, I hope they make smart decisions and then we'll be able to reload and have, with these guys, a complete team. With what we're adding for next season we'll be scary."
USCfootball.com: What advice have you given to sophomores Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu about the potential of entering the draft?
Tony Bland: "Just be smart. Be smart and be diligent in the process. Go and be honest with your self. If you have a legitimate chance, we would love...we want you to achieve your dreams, but if it's situation where you're a fringe, it's smart to come back and better your chances for the following year. We've got smart guys. I think they'll be honest with themselves and they'll go and do a good job."
USCfootball.com: So does that mean they are coming back or not?
Tony Bland: "I sure hope so. [laughs] I sure hope so, man. They're testing for sure. I know that much, but if they're not first rounders, I think they're smart enough and they'll be able to come back. So I don't know. We don't know if they will be first rounders or not. We think they are good enough to be NBA players one day though."
USCfootball.com: You do get to add an electric former five-star recruit in Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. What are you expecting from him next year?
Tony Bland: "He brings us another level of just tenacity both ends of the basketball. He's got a little bit of that what Julian Jacobs had to where he can just get in the paint and go by anybody. He makes the pace of the game a lot faster, you know extra possessions. I think you throw him alongside Jordan McLaughlin and now you've got something really special out there because you've got two guys that can bring it to you in every way.
"In my opinion, Jordan is the best point guard in the Pac-12. I think it will be an excellent dynamic adding Derryck. On the defensive end, guys don't even want to dribble the ball when he's guarding them. We're excited to have him. I wish we would have had him this year. I think we could have made it even deeper, made it a little further."
USCfootball.com: What was your biggest disappointment this season? Sounds like you felt you could do a little more damage in the tournament.
Tony Bland: "Up four, late in the game against Baylor and knowing we have a chance to continue and make it to New York. Knowing that we were good enough and we were right there and not able to close the game out. Again, we've got to take that as we did the Providence game the year before and we've got to build on it. We've got to use it as motivation, use it as fuel and hopefully it can take us to a whole another level next year."
USCfootball.com: What was your favorite thing that happened this season?
Tony Bland: "Just the way that all the guys bought in. If you watched the NCAA tournament games that we played, the three games we played, you had guys that are known for shooting the ball being the best passers on the team. You had guys that had never probably been in the paint in their lives in there fighting and battling to get a rebound.
"It seemed like when the tournament time came around, no one had an ego, no one had an agenda and they jelled together and I felt it. I felt a certain synergy that I hadn't felt the whole time I've been here coaching at USC. It was just great to be a part of and hopefully we can build on that synergy. Hopefully, we can use that and take it into next season and take it to another level."
USCfootball.com: You've been looked at for head coaching jobs. Does that synergy and the vibe at the end of the season make it harder to leave USC?
Tony Bland: "Yea. I think it will have to be perfect for me to leave. Even head coaching jobs, you can't leave USC, the associate head coach of USC, just for any head coaching job. That's the beauty of this whole thing.
"If I have people coming, they better come right because to keep it real, Shotgun, I wouldn't mind finishing my career out here if I had to. That's just how much I love it here, how much freedom Andy gives myself and the rest of the staff. In order to leave that freedom and this wonderful university, it would have to be something special."
USCfootball.com: Oregon is going to the Final Four...are you rooting for them?
Tony Bland: "I 100 percent want them to win a national championship. I want them to represent our league really well."
USCfootball.com: Isn't getting to the Final Four good enough?
Tony Bland: "No no no. I want them to win the whole thing. I want them to win the whole thing because it only helps the profile of the Pac-12."
USCfootball.com: It only helps their recruiting though...
Tony Bland: "Yea. That's fine. It's Oregon. They're going to recruit well regardless. Then if you beat them, it helps your recruiting. Every team in the Pac-12 won games in the tournament this year. We only got four in. I thought we should have had more in, at least five, maybe six. Hopefully, next year, the committee takes a look at it and sees how we did this year and says the Pac-12 at the end of the day is probably best or one of the better conferences in the country. That needs to be taken into consideration."
USCfootball.com: Last one...what was your favorite highlight play of the season?
Tony Bland: "We had so many of them, man. What sticks out in my head...home game against UCLA. The place was rocking, probably the best atmosphere that it's been in a while. Shot goes up from the front-right wing and from the left baseline Elijah Stewart came flying in like he's dropped out of the ceiling and got a tip dunk. I think when he did that, we were like, 'Oh we're going to win this game.' Like on that play right there.
"To me, that sticks out in my mind, but Chimezie had a million of them and so did Jordan. We had a million of them. We had an exciting team to watch."
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