January 30, 2018 by Sam Dodge
With UCLA’s inconsistency over the last decade, attendance has suffered. (Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES – USC has a chance this week to climb the ladder of Los Angeles basketball.
The crux of this is obviously Saturday’s trip to UCLA, where Andy Enfield’s team awaits – to quote Elijah Stewart — a “sea of blue” at Pauley Pavilion.
The rivalry takes new meaning in the context of the Blake Griffin departure from the Clippers. While the Lakers will always be No. 1 in Los Angeles, the No. 2 spot of the local basketball hierarchy is now in flux.
Let’s master the obvious here. One, USC is the currently at the bottom of the food chain. Two, no one is overtaking the Lakers.
Despite four straight seasons with less than 30 wins, and some of the highest ticket prices in the league, the Lakers still average near-sellouts. Whether it’s a championship year like 2010 or the last four years of misery, attendance hovers around the 18,997-person capacity of Staples Center.
The Clippers, despite supplanting the Lakers in the Pacific Division for the better part of the decade, have attracted nearly 2,000 less fans per game this season. Now they stare down the rest of their season without their franchise centerpiece.
Clippers fans could be witnessing the beginning of the return to this era. (Sports Illustrated)
Plus, they are outside the playoff picture right now. Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan leading a non-playoff team probably won’t sell seats.
Rumors about Lebron James fleeing Cleveland for Los Angeles, either for the Clippers or Lakers, are just rumors at this point. James wearing the red, white and blue makes this whole exercise moot.
Otherwise, it’s safe to assume they will falter.
USC’s rise to relevance hinges on poaching the more fickle of the Clippers crowd. Surpassing them should be a long-term goal.
Pat Haden promised relevance for USC basketball when he hired Enfield, knowing it would be a arduous journey. The next step to prominence goes through Westwood.
On the court, USC currently has the upper hand. Andy Enfield has snagged four of the last six games against the Bruins, including a three-game sweep in 2015-2016. With similar schedules, USC is a half-game behind Arizona for first in the Pac-12, and a full two games ahead of UCLA.
Outside of last year’s Lonzo Ball-led campaign, UCLA finds itself in a malaise. It’s been a decade since their last Final Four, and they’re on the verge of missing their fourth NCAA tournament of the last decade.
These recent failures have driven away fans. While last year’s Sweet 16 team surely generated excitement, averaging over 11,000 fans a game, the last decade has mostly seen Pauley Pavilion half to three-quarters full.
USC looked like it was going to fill this void early this season. The opener against Cal State Fullerton drew 6,237 spectators, only a few hundred below UCLA’s first home game against Central Arkansas. This is only 60 percent capacity, but it was a start.
Are you not entertained? Gladiator or Andy Enfield? (Getty Images)
Through 12 home games, only 3,809 people on average pass through Galen Center’s turnstiles.
This stresses the necessity for constantly positive momentum for Trojans basketball. People wanted to watch the Top-10 version of this year’s team. Once scandal and injuries undermined the non-conference, the interest vanished.
How does that interest resurface? First, beat UCLA at Pauley and Galen this year. This likely clinches a third-straight tournament for Andy Enfield, while signing Steve Alford’s pink slip.
With no more Steve Alford, do reinforcements like five-star center Moses Brown stay onboard? Does potential one-and-done Kris Wilkes leave amidst turmoil?
While USC loses Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart and probably one between Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, throwing UCLA into chaos makes next year’s rivalry more manageable. In short, more positive momentum.
Two, get to the second weekend of March Madness. Getting local and national eyeballs on the Trojans during college basketball’s biggest stage is vital.
Three, pray for no Lebron next year for the Clippers. Without the King, are downtown Los Angelinos really loyal to the Clippers?
If the first two hypotheticals happen, wouldn’t they rather watch a nationally-elite college team without breaking the bank?
This just adds fuel to the fire for game one. You have the conference’s No. 2 defense entering the home of the No. 1 offense. You have two elite point guards in McLaughlin and Aaron Holiday duking it out.
It’s not just about winning this year.
It’s about pushing aside UCLA for the foreseeable future.