January 23, 2018 by Sam Dodge
If Andy Enfield continues righting this ship, he deserves recognition. (Galen Central)
LOS ANGELES – Andy Enfield knows how to crawl out of a foxhole.
“If you remember our first two years,” he said after USC’s Jan. 14 victory over Utah, “we didn’t beat anybody.”
It’s one thing to make the tournament twice in a row after two 20-loss seasons. It’s another to completely reverse the negative inertia of a collapsing season.
After Daejon Davis resembled Agamemnon to crush the Men of Troy, swishing the half-court heave that stole a 77-76 Stanford triumph in Palo Alto, I wrote these words.
“As painful as it is to say, if USC can’t beat Stanford, what’s the hope it ever meets its pre-season expectations?
The horn is about to sound on their dreams.”
At the time, the only wins of note were Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State in the Diamond Head Classic. For Stanford, it was at best the end of a good weekend in a season that saw losses to Big Sky powers Portland State and Eastern Washington.
One team hit its nadir, while the other had a nice moment.
Both teams’ success since that Jan. 7 night not only throw cold water on my hot take, but justify conference coach of the year honors for both Enfield and the Cardinal’s Jerod Haase.
Jerod Haase on the right. (Getty Images)
USC and Stanford are a combined 7-1 since that night, with No. 11 Arizona nipping Stanford 73-71 in Maples Pavilion last Saturday.
First, the case for Enfield.
We know the obstacles. USC lost its best defender and backcourt finisher in De’Anthony Melton due to a dubious suspension. For a team returning a mediocre defense – No. 7 in the conference per KenPom in 2017 – the loss was deadly.
Add injuries to Bennie Boatwright, Jonah Matthews and Derryck Thornton, and it was unrealistic to expect everyone else to play at full capacity with little rotation. In particular, Jordan McLaughlin played practically every second while Thornton sat.
At 11-6 after Stanford, the Trojans were six feet under. In order to climb out of that proverbial foxhole, they needed reinforcements and some anger.
First, everyone got healthy. This opened up players like Jordan McLaughlin to flourish, scoring 15 a game post-Stanford and remaining No. 5 nationally in assists. Moreover, he’s the offensive and defensive quarterback, in charge of units that cough it up the least and force turnovers the most.
A healthy Boatwright plucked the Oregon Ducks with a vital 18 points on four threes. This helped clinch the first win in Eugene since 2009 and quietly build the resume.
Second, a party-size bag of potato chips is forming on everyone’s shoulders, even the head man.
Remember Colorado head coach Tad Boyle’s comments on the Arizona and USC FBI allegations? This led to an Enfield timeout in the final minute against the Buffaloes with his team up double-digits.
Here’s Andy Enfield’s end-of-game reaction and handshake with Tad Boyle as well as De’Anthony Melton’s interaction with Boyle: pic.twitter.com/6oe49ele3z
— Shotgun Spratling (@ShotgunSpr) January 11, 2018
“I just had some things to say to my team,” Enfield said, who practically sprinted past Boyle’s staff after the buzzer.
The very next game, USC blew the doors off Utah for the first time since Kevin O’Neill roamed the sidelines. Utah provided extra motivation mid-game.
“Utah, especially (head coach Larry Krystkowiak), talked a lot of trash,” Jonah Matthews said. “About our team, or even about De’Anthony.”
Chimezie Metu, especially since the official suspension of Melton, mixes Antetokounmpo dunks and Mutombo swats.
While averaging a modest 13.8 points post-Stanford, he’s a hell beast on the interior, blocking three shots a game – including six against Colorado – while displaying improved discipline.
Lastly, the hard facts for Enfield. He had a team squarely outside the NCAA tournament less than three weeks ago. Losses to Princeton, Washington and Stanford – all outside the top-100 in RPI at the time – seemed like death knells.
However, in short time, he has remolded the team – now the No. 2 offense and defense in the Pac-12 — and finds his squad on the right side of the bubble.
This team, so moribund only weeks ago, now sits only a half-game out of first place in the conference. Enfield has quietly earned recognition as the coach of the year out west.
Arizona’s Sean Miller won’t. He still has all of his players.
The main competition is Haase, leading the suddenly dangerous Cardinal to a 5-1 mark after a 77-74 loss to conference doormat Cal.
The nation’s No. 298 (out of 351) least-experienced team endured a brutal non-conference, absorbing beat downs from North Carolina, Kansas and Florida. They competed against Ohio State, losing by eight to the top team in the Big Ten.
At 6-8 following two sub-par seasons, no one saw the eruption that was about to take place.
First, they topped a ranked UCLA 107-99 in double overtime. Next, The Shot.
After that, they swept the Washington schools, including now RPI No. 50 Washington. They trailed only once to Arizona State for another upset.
Cardinal forward Reid Travis – “a real man” according to Enfield – looked potential All-American Deandre Ayton of Arizona in the eye and straight-up whooped him. He notched 20 points on 13 shots and ten boards. Ayton needed nine shots to score nine points.
Despite falling to the Wildcats, Haase’s team is unexpectedly relevant, despite no players sniffing the NBA next year.
Enfield certainly has the talent advantage, with several top-100 recruits supplementing future pros in Metu and Boatwright. If Haase can finish this surge by dancing in March, he’s the clear choice.
Wednesday night’s tilt in Galen Center could tip the scales to either man. Enfield understands that Travis can’t replicate his 29-point night from before. Haase probably knows that he can’t fall behind 15 again and expect to survive.
I’ve written on USC’s struggles against big men. Travis certainly qualifies as a problem.
However, I can’t help but remember Jordan McLaughlin’s smile after the Stanford loss.
A smile can mean many things. Happiness, for sure. Possibly even denial.
Seeing how motivated USC has played since that night, it’s clear what McLaughlin meant.
We’re angry, and we’ll see you in a few weeks.
USC hosts Stanford at 6:00 P.M. PST on ESPNU.