In the presence of unprecedented circumstances, in the absence of anything resembling closure, USC basketball coach Andy Enfield remains convinced his Trojans could have made a run in the NCAA tournament.
None of that matters now, of course. Not with the season cut short and all of college sports closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no brackets to be busted, no nets to be cut down, no program-altering validation to be found during a different kind of March Madness.
This week, when he might’ve otherwise coached in the Sweet 16, Enfield was instead quarantined in his Manhattan Beach home, leaving only to drive to his daughter’s school.
Regardless of this new reality, at the close of his seventh campaign as USC's coach, Enfield is defiant when asked how his program should be evaluated in the wake of a shortened season.
He knows the Trojans would’ve been tournament-bound for the first time in three seasons — “One hundred percent we were in,” he reiterated. Tournament or not, he plans to hold tight to that hypothetical invite.
That’s because before the Pac-12 tournament was called off and the NCAA tournament was canceled, the pieces were finally starting to fit for USC. Its defense was dominating. Its inconsistent offense, led by resurgent senior Jonah Mathews, was improving.
With wins in five of their last seven games, the Trojans, at 22-9, looked ready to prove themselves on the postseason stage, Enfield said.
“This team was good enough to make a run in the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAA tournament,” Enfield said in a phone interview this week. “There are a lot of good teams out there. But we were playing such great basketball.”
It’s impossible to tell how far that might’ve carried them. But Enfield can list the reasons, anyway: Mathews’ improved play. Ethan Anderson’s late-season poise. Isaiah Mobley’s newfound confidence off the bench. Not to mention the possible top-10 pick in the frontcourt, Onyeka Okongwu.
“When you look back, it is frustrating,” Enfield said. “This was a team that was peaking at the right time.”
But in the absence of any official resolution, how exactly should the shortened season be evaluated? For Enfield, whose Trojans missed the last two NCAA tournaments, it’s an especially salient question.
As USC enters its offseason more abruptly than expected, its leadership in the athletic department remains confident in Enfield, whose contract runs through 2023.
By wins alone (109), no coach has ever had a more successful five-year run at USC, with 20-plus wins in four of those seasons. His last recruiting class was the highest-ranked in school history, and next season, USC welcomes its highest-rated recruit ever in Rancho Christian High's Evan Mobley, the brother of Isaiah.
But that on-paper progress has yet to propel the program forward to its full potential. The Trojans have won just two NCAA tournament games in Enfield’s seven seasons, both of which came in 2017. His USC teams are 18-36 in February, as strong starts have often given way to late-season struggles.
Those fortunes could’ve changed this March, for a team that had found its stride after opening the season with only three returning players.
Enfield faces another quick rebuild this offseason, with four starters to replace and not a lot of depth to spare. He’ll have a five-star, 7-footer to soften the blow of the roster turnover, though, as Evan Mobley should step immediately into a starting role.
But where Okongwu was a hulking, low-post threat at 245 pounds, Evan Mobley is taller, longer, and just as explosive, with more scoring range on the perimeter.
“We’re going to need all of our new players to come in and get acclimated to the college game and quickly,” Enfield said. “We’re going to need Evan and the other recruits we have coming in to make a difference immediately.”
Right now, only center Boubacar Coulibaly and Santa Clara graduate transfer guard Tahj Eaddy are slated to join Evan Mobley. Freshman Kyle Sturdivant entered the transfer portal this week, leaving the Trojans with eight scholarship players currently in the fold for next season.
Enfield expects to add to that number, with several top targets, including Sierra Canyon five-star prospect Ziaire Williams, still mulling decisions. USC may look to add players through the transfer portal, too.
“We’re going to have a very lean roster next year,” Enfield said.
It should not lack for talent, though. And after another season, albeit a shortened one, away from March Madness, Enfield and the Trojans shouldn’t lack for pressure or expectations, either.
USC to play Kansas
USC has signed on to play a home-and-home series with Kansas, opening this December at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks, who were expected to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, will play at Galen Center in December 2021.