Andy Enfield’s March Madness message: Don’t overlook USC again

Andy Enfield knows you’ve probably overlooked USC.

Don’t worry, he’s used to it already. After nearly a decade trying to revive a catatonic college basketball program, the coach understands you may have been asleep for most of the Trojans’ peak hours. Perhaps, for one reason or another, you’ve failed to notice how far USC has climbed since its acquisition — last season’s Elite Eight run, record wins this season, a high-profile recruiting class. Or maybe despite all that, you just don’t believe in him or USC Hoops.

Either way, Enfield has a stat for you.

For those unaware of USC’s surprising track record, the trainer knows that his regular references to the statistical standing of Trojans provide compelling context for the program’s rise. That’s why Enfield memorized many of his favorite stats and filed them whenever the moment called for a reminder. Which he thinks happens quite often.

Those favorite milestones have evolved over the years from relative small things — like former point guard Jordan McLaughlin’s assist-to-turnover ratio — to macro measures, like wins in Power Six programs in the last three seasons (73) — a number that lags only Baylor and Kansas, two of the NCAA tournament’s top four seeds.

The shift indicates a change in the Trojans’ trajectory during Enfield’s tenure. But the conceit behind his regular reciting of stats remains the same.

“Who else is going to stand up for us if not me?” Enfield said last week. “No one.”

USC coach spoke to Chevez Goodwin during the Trojans' Elite Eight loss to Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last year.

USC coach spoke to Chevez Goodwin during the Trojans’ Elite Eight loss to Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last year.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As USC prepares for its fourth tournament appearance in nine seasons under the coach, a journey that begins Friday as a seventh against seven-seed Miami (Fla.), Enfield sits back in his office chair and happily shares some testimonials — and wise ones Point out some perceived slights.

It’s a line he still straddles regularly. As he nears a decade as USC coach, the eternal chip on Enfield’s shoulder is still intact, even as he affirms he doesn’t internalize the disrespect.

“Sometimes the head coach has to vouch for his program,” says Enfield. “Due to the time difference on the West Coast, I’ve felt over the past few years that some parts of the country, whether fans or media, haven’t realized that there are good teams in the Pac-12, and USC is one of those good teams. We’ve had a lot of good players and teams here in recent years. I think there are appropriate times when a head coach can and must stand up for his program because no one else does.”

Enfield rarely misses a chance to defend USC’s progress. His case has become increasingly compelling in recent years, culminating in the Trojans’ run to the Elite Eight last March.

“He knows his job here,” said assistant coach Chris Capko. “I don’t think he cares about being recognized or anything, but he wants you to know how far this program has come.”

That’s where the numbers come in.

When the pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, Enfield asked USC Operations Manager Mike Swets to take on a project. His task? Find statistical context to underscore exactly where the program ranks in relation to the rest of college basketball.

The end result was multiple Excel spreadsheets of data that Swets still updates once or sometimes twice a week. Different tabs track USC’s conference and out-of-conference recordings compared to its Power Six peers over the past two years, three years, and so on. Another counts NCAA tournament wins among coaches with less than 10 years of experience. In that category, Enfield (7) trails only behind Chris Beard (10) of Texas – a stat Enfield was happy to pass on.

“It’s important to put what’s being done now in context with the past,” Swets said. “If you look at the numbers – well, even I didn’t quite understand where we were.”

“I ask myself all these questions: When do we get our respect? We made an Elite Eight. We had a top three pick in the draft. We had Big O [Onyeka Okongwu], before that a top 6 player in the draft. We had all these guys. We win.”

Max Agbonkpolo, USC forward

When Enfield first joined USC in 2013, the program was far from on level ground. Enfield, buoyed up from the breathtaking Dunk City run on Florida’s Gulf Coast, chose USC over several other coaching offers and quickly realized the job required a major makeover. Four starters were gone, including future NBA center Dewayne Dedmon. The only returning starter, JT Terrell, would miss eight games early in the season due to academic issues.

The culture wasn’t good either, recalls Byron Wesley, who led the Trojans in goals in Enfield’s first season. Most USC players loved Enfield’s wide-open offense, which was the “polar opposite” of former coach Kevin O’Neill’s stricter system. But some didn’t appreciate the new coach’s other efforts to implement change.

Wesley recalled the team reacting poorly the first time Enfield imposed a curfew on them.

USC's Byron Wesley drives to the basket during a game in January 2014 against California's Jabari Bird.

USC’s Byron Wesley (center) drives to the basket against Jabari Bird of California during a game in January 2014.

(Jae C Hong / Associated Press)

“Everyone did their own thing. The guys lived it in LA,” Wesley said. “I don’t think we put winning and basketball above everything.”

The Trojans didn’t gain much that first year—or the next. They started Enfield’s first two seasons only 5-31 in Pac-12 play. But the last of those five wins — a win over Arizona State in the conference tournament — hinted at USC’s coaching staff that a change was imminent. USC made the NCAA tournament the next season.

“Although many people have questioned us, we have never lost confidence in our short and long-term plans,” Enfield said. “We knew it would take time. But if you’re 2-16 in the league, then 3-15 your sophomore year, a lot of people questioned us.

Only 12 teams in the Power Six have won more games than USC in the seven years since. This group is primarily made up of basketball blue bloods like Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Even UCLA is 10 wins behind its less-established in-town rival.

However, fears linger that USC and its coach will be ranked among the best in the nation.

“They never show us our respect,” said striker Max Agbonkpolo. “UCLA will do one thing well for our five things that we do well, and they get the respect — I don’t even know. I ask myself all these questions: When do we get our respect? We made an Elite Eight. We had a top three pick in the draft. We had Big O [Onyeka Okongwu], before that a top 6 player in the draft. We had all these guys. We win.”

Those credentials were apparently compelling enough this season to catch the eye of other schools like Maryland and Georgia who were looking for a new coach. Enfield had already signed a contract extension with USC in light of the Elite Eight run, but this new contract was short enough to warrant that Enfield should consider other offers.

USC coach Andy Enfield claps during a game against Washington State on February 20.

USC coach Andy Enfield claps during a game against Washington State on February 20.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

USC never let it get to that point, and earlier this month signed Enfield to a new six-year deal that included more guaranteed years and money. The USC coach did not lose the vote of confidence.

“It means a lot,” Enfield said, “because it shows the President’s Office’s commitment to sports administration [athletic director] Mike Bohn what their vision is for the program and that there is enthusiasm for where we are and where we want to go.”

There are still many mile markers to be reached for USC basketball. But as Enfield positions the Trojans for another postseason run, the results so far, Bohn told the Los Angeles Times, have spoken for themselves.

“Andy’s longevity as our coach is critical to us,” Bohn said. “He played a huge part in changing the course, respect and reputation of the program. You just have to look at the number of players he’s put into the NBA, the number of wins.”

The numbers certainly tell a story about how far USC has come, a story his coach has been trying to tell you all along. Andy Enfield’s March Madness message: Don’t overlook USC again

Andrew Schnitker

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