Welcome to a whole new era of USC basketball with Bronny James
We mean this sincerely: We’re happy to see so many people freshly interested in USC men’s basketball. We welcome one and all to our coverage of USC hoops. We’re certainly not going to say, imply, or suggest that people should have been following this program very closely in previous years. UCLA is and has been the big cheese in Los Angeles-area college hoops. The Bruins and Arizona have been the class of the Pac-12 the past few years. Oregon was a big-time basketball school six years ago under coach Dana Altman.
We can be honest with ourselves and admit that USC has very rarely fielded elite men’s college basketball teams. The 1971 team, the school’s best ever, was elite. So was the 1974 team. So was 1940, when USC made the Final Four. The 1992 team grabbed a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, USC’s highest seed in March Madness history.
That’s pretty much it. USC has not been an enduringly successful college basketball school. Why would casual sports fans in Los Angeles be expected to pack the Galen Center?
Now that Bronny James is here, however, that is going to change. People will want to be at Galen. They will want to see Bronny. They will want to see a USC team which has real star power and a higher ceiling than any other USC team in recent memory.
This is all very new. If you’re new to USC basketball, let’s take this time to give you a primer on the history and identity of this program, plus the 2023-2024 Trojans:
FACT NUMBER ONE
Mar 9, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USC Trojans head coach Andy Enfield watches play against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second period at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
USC has finished in the top eight of the national college basketball polls exactly three times: 1961, 1971, and 1992. That’s not very much, obviously.
FACT NUMBER TWO
Feb 23, 2023; Boulder, Colorado, USA; USC Trojans head coach Andy Enfield calls out in the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
USC men’s basketball has started a season in the top eight of the polls (the preseason poll) exactly three times: 1962, 1971, and 1972. Also not very much to speak of. This has not been a powerhouse program. It has had a few isolated seasons in which it produced great teams, but nothing sustained beyond a four-year period (1971-1975, 2021-2023, 2007-2009).
FACT NUMBER THREE
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
USC last made the Final Four in 1954, when the Trojans went 19-14 but qualified for the NCAA Tournament because they won their conference.
Mar 2, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; USC Trojans guard Reese Dixon-Waters (2) drives past Arizona Wildcats guard Cedric Henderson Jr. (45) and forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) in the second half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
USC qualified for the 2020 NCAA Tournament but never got to actually play in that tournament because the pandemic caused a cancellation. When USC qualified for the 2023 NCAA Tournament, it marked the first time ever that the Trojans qualified for the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive seasons. That had never previously happened. That’s how rare sustained success has been for the Trojans on the basketball court.
Atlanta, GA, USA, FILE PHOTO; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Billy Tubbs on the sideline during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Omni. USC was an 8 seed in 1985 under Stan Morrison. The Trojans barely lost to Illinois State in the first round. USC narrowly missed a chance to face top-seeded Oklahoma in the second round. Billy Tubbs had Wayman Tisdale on his roster. The Sooners lost to Memphis State in the Elite Eight. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
USC’s last Pac-10 Conference regular-season basketball championship came in 1985. The Trojans haven’t won their regular-season conference crown in 38 years.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 12: USC Trojans players watch from the bench area as the team takes on the Colorado Buffaloes during the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament semifinals at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Buffaloes defeated the Trojans 72-70. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Pac-12 Tournament has been played 25 times. USC has won it only once. Arizona has won it nine times, Oregon five, UCLA four.
NCAA TOURNAMENT SEEDS
Apr 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; A general view of a March Madness bracket outside before the championship game between the Virginia Cavaliers and Texas Tech Red Raiders. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
USC has been seeded higher than No. 4 at the NCAA Tournament exactly once, in 1992. That was the Harold Miner team. You get the point: USC has not been a Cadillac program or a top sports destination for Los Angeles sports fans. Now let’s move into a discussion of the Trojans in recent years under head coach Andy Enfield.
Jan 26, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Amdy Enfield reacts in the second half against the UCLA Bruins at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Andy Enfield came to USC from Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, one decade ago. USC basketball was a mess when Enfield arrived. This was not a quick-fix job. Enfield made the NCAA Tournament in three years, getting the Trojans to the 2016 tournament. He returned in 2017, then 2021 (USC would have been part of the 2020 event, but it was canceled), 2022, and 2023. In five NCAA Tournament appearances, Enfield has lost his first game three times. USC has reached the second weekend of the NCAAs (Sweet 16 or Elite Eight) once, in 2021 under Evan Mobley. The lack of deep runs has made some fans think Enfield isn’t achieving enough.
Mar 17, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; USC Trojans players stand for the National Anthem prior to their game against the Michigan State Spartans during the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
USC has rarely had a roster mixture which could really do a lot in March. The 2021 team had Evan Mobley as its centerpiece, with solid role players such as Tahj Eaddy, Chevez Goodwin, Isaiah White, Drew Peterson, and Isaiah Mobley. Even then, however, that team was a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t a behemoth or a heavyweight.
USC basketball rosters have lacked an elite classic point guard since Jordan McLaughlin in 2018. That deficiency has prevented Enfield from being able to produce a truly dominant offense.
ENFIELD, DEFENSE, AND BIG MEN
Mar 20, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Southern California Trojans forward Evan Mobley (4) goes to the basket as Drake Bulldogs forward Tremell Murphy (2) looks on during the first half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Andy Enfield has been a great recruiter and developer of big men at USC. Onyeka Okongwu, on the 2020 team, was a lottery pick at No. 6. Evan Mobley was the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Isaiah Mobley was the team’s top big man in the 2022 season. Vince Iwuchukwu is the program’s current high-level big man. Enfield has not had a problem bringing in top big men. Point guard is where he has fallen short.
Mar 28, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; McDonald’s All American West guard Isaiah Collier (4) shoots the ball over McDonald’s All American East forward Xavier Booker (34) during the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports
Collier is the top-ranked recruit in the country for the Class of 2023. This is the kind of point guard Enfield had not previously recruited. Collier gives USC a chance to be special, and now with Bronny, he can do even more. Fans who criticized Enfield for previous seasons and results were upset at the ultimate outcomes, but the rosters at USC were not good enough to make deep NCAA Tournament runs. Now, with Collier and Bronny, USC has that high-end talent at long last.
Mar 2, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Kerr Kriisa (25) beats USC Trojans forward Vincent Iwuchukwu (3) to a rebound in the first half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
A reminder about Vince Iwuchukwu, USC’s big man: He suffered cardiac arrest in July of 2022. He wasn’t medically cleared to play until January 12, 2023. He didn’t get to participate in full offseason workouts as he recovered from his heart attack. Now Iwuchukwu should be able to partake in offseason workouts and build up a fitness base heading into the new season. He played under a minutes restriction last season, sometimes playing fewer than 10 minutes a game and never playing 30 or more minutes per game. If he can play 30 or at least 27 minutes per game this coming season, and be highly effective, USC’s ceiling rises considerably.
Dec 7, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans guard Boogie Ellis (5) and guard Drew Peterson (13) celebrate against the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the first half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Boogie Ellis was widely expected to turn pro this offseason, but he chose to come back to USC. Ellis carried the USC offense this past season. He scored 35 against Arizona on March 2 and 28 against Arizona State on March 4 in a big win which sealed USC’s NCAA Tournament berth. Ellis became a smarter offensive player as well as a tougher ballhandler who could finish through contact when going to the basket. He comes back with even more experience next season and will play alongside Collier and Bronny. USC really will have one of the best backcourts in the whole country — certainly a top-10 backcourt, and very likely a top-five backcourt. This is new territory for the Trojans.
Mar 2, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Kerr Kriisa (25) defends a pass for USC Trojans forward Kobe Johnson (0) in the second half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Kobe Johnson was USC’s unsung hero and the Trojans’ best defensive player last season. Getting steals, making hustle plays, grabbing loose balls, defending guards and wings — Johnson did the gruntwork for this team. On a roster with Bronny James, Isaiah Collier, and Boogie Ellis (three superb scorers), Kobe Johnson will defend and rebound and give USC needed defensive heft.
JOSHUA MORGAN, KIJANI WRIGHT
Mar 17, 2023; Columbus, OH, USA; USC Trojans forward Joshua Morgan (24) goes to the basket in the first half against the Michigan State Spartans at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua Morgan and Kijani Wright will be the other USC bigs alongside Vince Iwuchukwu. Andy Enfield will have real frontcourt depth. Morgan will get plenty of minutes. Wright will receive fewer minutes than Morgan and Iwuchukwu, but he improved late last season and should still be a factor. If Wright can play 12 solid minutes per game, USC will never have to worry about losing defensive stability when resting Iwuchukwu or Morgan.
Dec 7, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Andy Enfield reacts against the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the first half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
With Tre White, Malik Thomas, and Reese Dixon-Waters all transferring out of the program, plus recruit Silas Demary decommitting, there is still an open roster slot even with Bronny James’ arrival. USC needs a stretch four or a traditional power forward to round out its roster. Someone with a little more positional versatility than a traditional five (center) would give the USC roster its one missing piece. This is a very, very good roster, but one part of the puzzle is still missing. Keep an eye out for the transfer market.
COMING BACK TO BRONNY
Jan 27, 2023; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Sierra Canyon Trailblazers point guard Bronny James (0) looks on during warm up for the Battle of the Valley against the Notre Dame Knights played at Pauley Pavilion. James did not play because of a knee injury. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s wrap up with a big-picture point about Bronny James: He isn’t the best player on this roster. Isaiah Collier is. Yet, Bronny’s value to USC is already enormous. He has made USC basketball popular in ways it has never been before. USC will be the “cool” program, the place where other recruits and transfers will want to go. USC could become a destination program on par with UCLA and Arizona, and then with Michigan State and Purdue in the Big Ten. That could become Bronny’s lasting contribution to USC basketball, even if he’s a Trojan for just one season before going to the NBA.