LAS VEGAS — Ten minutes after Shaquielle McKissic's potential game-tying half-court heave bounced harmlessly off the back iron, USC coach Andy Enfield still seemed surprised the Arizona State guard missed.
"Did you think that shot was going in?" he asked his wife outside the locker room after the Trojans' 67-64 opening-round Pac-12 tournament win. Then Enfield asked a couple other bystanders the same question.
Excuse Enfield for expecting bad luck to befall his team because more often than not this season it has. Seven losses by five or fewer points and five on the final possession obscured the progress rebuilding USC has made in Enfield's second season and doomed the Trojans (12-19, 3-15) to a second straight last-place finish in the Pac-12.
A Pac-12 tournament win against middling Arizona State certainly isn't proof USC has turned the corner, but it does show Enfield hasn't lost his team. Facing a 15-point deficit with 10 minutes left in a game that could have mercifully ended a disappointing season, the Trojans showed impressive resolve in closing the game with a 25-7 surge to earn a quarterfinal matchup with fourth-seeded UCLA.
What's most encouraging for USC is that the players who spearheaded the comeback all have at least two years eligibility remaining. Freshman wing Elijah Stewart scored 14 of his game-high 27 points in the final 10 minutes. Sophomore point guard Julian Jacobs delivered four points and three assists during the run. Sophomore big man Nikola Jovanovic made the biggest defensive play of the game, swatting away McKissic's attempt at a go-ahead layup with seven seconds remaining.
"As a coaching staff, we've never been more excited about the future of our program," Enfield told Yahoo Sports. "With the lack of wins on paper, it might look like we're not improving, but we have improved. We have everyone coming back next year and in fact the next couple years. We feel like we have a good nucleus to build around, but they have to put on 10, 15 pounds of muscle, work on their skills and have a hunger from losing all these close games this year."
All the losing is an unfamiliar experience for a coach who had experienced nothing but success in all walks of life.
Enfield graduated from prestigious Johns Hopkins University, thrived in the business world as an entrepreneur and married a model who previously graced the pages of Maxim. After transitioning to basketball, Enfield rose from shooting guru for NBA players, to architect of a stunning Sweet 16 run at Florida Gulf Coast, to USC's ballyhooed new coach.
There's pressure on Enfield to make progress in year three at USC because of the fanfare that accompanied his arrival.
In 2006, USC traded the decaying Los Angeles Sports Arena for the state-of-the-art Galen Center. In 2010, the Trojans replaced an athletic director disinterested in basketball with one in Pat Haden who was willing to increase the recruiting budget and pay top dollar for assistant coaches. And in 2013, Haden went in search of a coach capable of reviving a basketball program that by the USC athletic director's own admission had "not been relevant for a while."
What Haden liked most about Enfield was that he won at FGCU playing an appealing, fast-paced style. Though Enfield didn't win a league title either of his seasons at FGCU and wasn't on USC's radar until after the 2013 NCAA tournament, Haden believed the 43-year-old coach could take advantage of the Trojans' newfound resources, recruit the fertile Los Angeles area and put fans in the seats at the Galen Center.
Enfield landed three Rivals 150 prospects in his first recruiting class and has two more set to arrive next fall, but he needs more time for the infusion of young talent to translate into sustained success and increased fan support. USC averaged a paltry 3,552 fans per home game this year, last in the Pac-12 and nearly 700 fewer per game than what the Trojans drew the season before Enfield arrived.
"This year has been challenging and frustrating, but it has made me a much better basketball coach," Enfield said. "When you have such a young team, the leadership has to come from within the coaching staff. Some of these guys are developing leadership skills but we're not there yet. It's a lot easier coaching when you have upperclassmen on the court and when the going gets tough, you don't have to say a word."
Next season, Enfield will no longer be able to use youth as an excuse for losing.
Highly touted point guard Jordan McLaughlin will return from shoulder surgery. Stewart, Jacobs, Jovanovic and the rest of this season's nucleus is expected to be back. And a pair of freshman big men will arrive, bolstering a frontcourt that frequently gets pushed on the glass by bigger teams this season.
That's enough talent and experience for the Trojans to ascend in the Pac-12 pecking order, especially if they duplicate the resolve they displayed Wednesday night.
"We expect to win more games than we did this year," Enfield said. "That's part of improving. That's why we need to have a huge offseason so that come next year, we can really compete."
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