How USC Became Andy Enfield’s “Most Improved Team”

Four months ago, long before the Trojans secured him third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Andy Enfield left the court after USCThe newcomer at home, worried about what he just saw.

You couldn’t think of a more disastrous start for USC. Lost by 13 points in the hands of Florida on the Gulf Coast, the former Anfield team has questioned everything about the upcoming season, his 10th as manager. The new approach with four guards failed. A new, youth rotation looked lost. The two senior captains fought. In his post-match press session, Anfield lamented their lack of preparation.

“We were not a very good team,” the coach admitted this week, recalling the start of the season. “We could have played anyone that night and lost. So we were a little nervous.”

Come to think of it, by March, those same Trojans hardly resembled the group that was smashed at the opening by the Florida Gulf Coast team, who ended up finishing ninth at the Atlantic Sun conference. USC only lost one game at the Galen Center before the end of the season. In total, the Trojans won 22 matches, which was the sixth time in seven years. And he sneaked into the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time near Anfield, the most trips in the history of a Trojans coach.

The path USC has taken from that disappointing night in November to Friday’s first round game against Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio sets it apart from other teams Anfield has coached at USC.

“This is probably the most complete team I’ve had at USC from the start of the year to the end,” Anfield said last week.

Even before their clumsy start, Anfield knew this season could prove to be challenging. He only had two players he could rely on. in Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, and they were hardly the most reliable players at that time. Peterson was prone to erratic stretching and needed to bulk up physically, while Ellis never showed himself to be a complete point guard capable of creating for others.

But as Anfield saw it, the season depended on how his two senior players performed. The staff had particular confidence in Ellis, choosing not to bring in another point guard to push him. The vote of confidence meant a lot to the senior captain, given his struggles at the end of the previous season.

“He didn’t pull anyone out of the transfer portal,” Ellis said. “He trusted me and believed in my game and allowed me to really develop and become a real leading defenseman.”

The trust has been rewarded as Ellis has evolved into one of the best point guards in the country at the end of the season. Especially in the last two months, Ellis has opened up another level of his game, averaging over 22 points over the past dozen USC games.

But turning the Trojans into a tournament team would take more than a big jump from the point guard.

Kobe Johnson played only 7.5 minutes per game as a freshman, becoming the 10th player in a 10-man rotation. He had only made 34 shots the entire previous season when Anfield named him as a sophomore.

Since then, he has played a major role in the USC rotation, growing into one of the best guards in college basketball, a by-product of the program’s patience. He even became a regular offensive player, scoring nine points per game.

“When you have good young players, our philosophy is that you should let them grow,” Anfield said.

It also often means giving them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

For Tre White, space was critical early on. The freshman struggled to adjust to his arrival last summer. But Enfield encouraged him to get rid of misses, keep shooting. He tried to keep White’s confidence by letting him solve problems himself.

It didn’t take long for him to realize this, as White started 27 of 31 USC games, earning a spot on the conference freshman team.

For Kijani Wright, things didn’t work out so quickly. The four-star freshman was expected to make an immediate impact, but lost his place in the rotation by the middle of the season.

So, Enfield and his staff identified areas where Wright needed to improve in order to bring them back while trying to stay positive.

“We were very specific with him,” Anfield said. “You have to be the best rebounder, you have to be the best defender. And he took it to heart.”

The staff trusted Wright to sort it out. And by March, he had already played many times off the bench.

“Some coaches try to control every little thing,” White explained. “But I feel that with coach Andy, he gives us directions, but he lets us be free. I feel like we all got better this way. It doesn’t rob us of confidence.”

Their confidence seemed to skyrocket ahead of last week’s trip to Las Vegas when the Trojans were sent into the first round. Pac-12 Conference Tournament for the first time since 2014.

The loss was a stark reminder of how little room for error USC had this March. But given the way it was in November, no one sees any reason to distrust the process now.

“At the start of this season, we didn’t know what kind of team we were going to be,” center forward Josh Morgan said. “But we stuck with it. We went through the course and eventually found a personality. Now, towards the end of the season, we are much better than at the beginning.”