November 25, 2014 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
It is that time of year, USC Basketball fans. A time to give thanks. Now, while it may be hard to find things to be thankful about when it comes to our basketball team after the slow 2-3 start to the season, I managed to find a few. Ten, in fact. As you’ll see, my focus is on the future. I know, I know. We have heard about the future for long enough. It seems like we hear about it year round, every year. Not to worry, though. I do find a way to be optimistic about the present as well because this time of year is about joy, optimism, family, and fun. So sit back, while I provide some holiday cheer. Without further ado, here we go:
- Hope – That’s right. We have hope. Eleven freshman or sophomores on our team. An already promising recruiting class for next year with two players ranked in the top 50. A second-year head coach with bright, young assistants. A team that is starting to play in the style the head coach desires. You may think, everyone can have hope, what makes us different? Talk to Oregon State, Northwestern, or Rutgers. Or several other programs with poor facilities, failed coaches, and boring cities to recruit to. Granted, our head coach is unproven and we have never had an extended period of success outside of the glorious Tim Floyd years. Who cares? We have everything we need to build a powerhouse program. Elite facilities, a great city located in a hotbed of basketball talent, a competitive conference, and a coaching staff that can, at the very least, recruit well. Hope springs eternal.
- Four Talented Freshman – One of the reasons for the hope is the current crop of freshman: Jordan McLaughlin, Malik Martin, Malik Marquetti, and Elijah Stewart. All four were ranked very highly. McLaughlin chose USC over Kansas, Indiana, and UCLA. Nice. Three of the four went to high school in LA. Much has been made about the need to lock down LA if we want to build a dominant program. I don’t completely buy that, especially in basketball, but if this coaching staff can be in contention for the best players in LA, then game on. The best players in LA are generally some of the best in the nation, and it’s easier to recruit players from your own city. If guys like McLaughlin start routinely coming to USC, it might become the “cool thing to do.” Don’t underestimate that when it comes to 17 and 18-year-olds. Also, keep this in mind. USC was in contention for Stanley Johnson, a top five player in the country. Even though Enfield couldn’t snare him from Arizona, the fact that the Trojans are now in play for guys like that is a very good sign.
- A Committed Athletic Director – Everyone has heard the phrase, “It all starts at the top.” It’s really true, especially when it comes to big time college athletics. You must have the support and commitment of the athletic director in order to build a successful program. Pat Haden is on board. One of the first public statements he made after becoming the AD was that USC needs to restore its men’s basketball and baseball programs. That was music to my ears, especially after the previous AD not only didn’t support men’s basketball, he showed an open contempt and lack of support for it. From not fighting to keep the best coach in school history (Tim Floyd) after he flirted with the Arizona job, to releasing players without informing Floyd, to basically forcing Floyd out after incorrect allegations were made against him, to self-imposing sanctions against the basketball program to try to protect football, Mike Garrett had zero interest in developing a successful men’s basketball program at USC. In my four years at USC, three of them with Garrett in charge, I rarely saw him at games. Talk about a 180 with Pat Haden. He is at almost every game, sitting in the front row, and talking to fans. He is engaged and openly talks about the importance of basketball. Has he made mistakes? Sure, but he’s the kind of person I want leading the way.
- Successful Alumni – O.J. Mayo, DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson, Nikola Vucevic, Nick Young. There are a lot of former USC players not only playing in the NBA, but playing well. Vucevic is second in the league in rebounding. DeRozan was an All-Star last year. And Nick Young had a solid year last year for the hometown Lakers. This is a good thing. High school basketball players want the chance to someday play in the NBA. It’s not realistic for the vast majority of them, but they want a situation and a school that will help them get there. The players I listed are living proof that it can happen at USC. We may not be Kentucky, but we’re not Northwestern either.
- A World Class University – As much as players want to be in the NBA, many realize that it’s not bad to have a backup plan or something to do after basketball. USC is the perfect place for that. Whether someone is interested in cinema, communications, or business, USC has elite academic programs in almost every area. Some may laugh this off, but listen to players when they select USC and almost every time you will hear them mention the outstanding academic reputation of the school. It’s not a bad selling point on the parents either.
- Recent Success – In 2006, USC went to the Sweet 16. In 2007, O.J. Mayo helped sell out the Galen Center routinely and the Trojans were a six seed in the NCAA Tournament. In 2008, DeMar DeRozan was the MVP of the Pac-10 Tournament that USC won and the Trojans knocked off Boston College in the first round of the Big Dance before losing to eventual national runner-up Michigan State. In 2010, USC snuck in to the tourney and was knocked off by eventual final four participant VCU. Really, all of this happened! It’s hard to believe after the last three years of futility, but it’s actually true. I saw all of it! I tell people all the time that I wish they could have been there when I was a freshman and the student line wrapped around Galen Center to see O.J. Mayo, Davon Jefferson, Taj Gibson, and Daniel Hackett. Or, when DeMar DeRozan went off at Staples Center in the Pac-10 Tournament and USC won it as a six-seed, upsetting Cal, UCLA, and James Harden’s ASU Sun Devils after being down 15 at the half. Oh, those were the days. And before Tim Floyd was forced out by the aforementioned Mike Garrett, the number one recruiting class in the country was on the way! It featured the likes of Derrick Williams, MoMo Jones, and Solomon Hill, all of whom helped lead Arizona to the Elite Eight and set Sean Miller up pretty for years to come. Again, I hate to pick on Northwestern, but they have never been to the tournament. Ever. We’re not them. We have still fresh memories of recent success and what is possible at USC.
- A Basketball Rich City – USC may be a football school, but Los Angeles is a basketball city. Even though, as a native Midwesterner, I often complain about the fair-weather nature of LA sports fans, the one team they show the most loyalty to is the Lakers. Los Angeles loves good basketball. Put a good team in the Galen Center year in and year out, and people will show up. Consistency is a must, though, or the butts won’t stay in the seats. Something about that does attract me. I like that you’re forced to be consistently good in LA. People aren’t blindly loyal, as nice as that can sometimes be. There’s pressure to win and to do it routinely. The Tim Floyd years are proof that people will show up to watch good basketball in LA. We don’t have the history of UCLA or the Lakers, but the point still stands. And what a better time than now?! The Lakers are down, UCLA is solid but not spectacular, and the hottest ticket in town is the Clippers. The Clippers! Put a consistent winner on the court at the Galen Center and people will start to show up.
- The Galen Center – It’s one of the best facilities in college basketball. Former Head Coach Tim Floyd helped secure the funding for it. Think facilities don’t matter? Take a look at what Nebraska and Tim Miles are doing with their sparkling new digs. They made the tournament last year for the first time since 1999 and aren’t turning back. Think O.J. Mayo would have come to USC if they were still playing in the Sports Arena? Ummm, no. As superficial as they can be, they matter to teenagers deciding where they will spend the next four years of their lives. And maybe they aren’t as superficial as we think. Good facilities show commitment, something I covered earlier. They make it easier to train at a high level and prepare for the next level. They matter. And USC has them.
- A Coaching Staff That Can Recruit – I didn’t care for Kevin O’Neill as a coach, but he was great to me as a member of the media when I was a student at USC. He took time every week to come on my radio show that probably only my parents and a few of my frat brothers listened to. He answered questions thoughtfully and honestly. He gave us tons of access and was funny. Despite all this, he couldn’t recruit and even worse than that, he couldn’t keep his best players at USC. The one decent recruiting class he secured featured Byron Wesley, Maurice Jones, Bryce Jones, Garrett Jackson, and Curtis Washington. Wesley stayed during KO’s entire tenure, but left after his junior season. Mo Jones stayed two years. Bryce Jones didn’t even make it through one. Jackson left after two, as did Washington. USC was never in contention for players like O.J. Mayo, DeMar DeRozan, or Jordan McLaughlin when O’Neill was at the helm. I’ll give him a slight pass in that he took over during a tough period when sanctions were imposed. However, he didn’t recruit well at his other stops either and the time had come for a change. If Andy Enfield and his staff have proven one thing, it’s that they can recruit. Just think if the product on the court starts improving. Recruiting, for a staff that already excels at it, will become that much easier. Recruiting ability is the first thing I look for in a college head coach, and Enfield and his staff have it.
- An Exciting Brand of Basketball – Who didn’t love watching Florida Gulf Coast dazzle the country as a 15-seed at the NCAA Tournament in 2013? It was just that they were winning. It was the way they were doing it. One of the frustrations of the KO era at USC was the slow tempo the Trojans played it. Part of that was by necessity, but part of it was just O’Neill’s brand of basketball. High school players like to run up and down the floor and make plays in transition. And don’t for a second think that defense isn’t important in Enfield’s system. It’s the number one key to success. However, instead of just holding teams to a low field goal percentage, a successful Enfield teams will force turnovers, push the pace, and cash in those turnovers into easy buckets. That’s the brand of basketball that draws kids into your program, especially a program in the heart of LA. Los Angeles is about show time, Hollywood, and flair. Style matters. We started to see glimpses of what this style could look like in USC’s recent victory over Drexel in Charleston. It got me excited about what might be and hopefully what will be in the very near future.
Happy Thanksgiving to all! I hope you have a wonderful holiday filled with lots of family time, great food, football, joy, and hope for the future of USC Basketball.