Andy Enfield is a numbers guy. With a degree in economics from Johns Hopkins University, he understands trends and trajectories, and, entering last season, he was the first person to note that from 2016-18 his program had won more games than during any other three-year period in USC men’s basketball history.
The numbers did not say that the Trojans, in Enfield’s sixth season, would have their first losing record since the head coach’s second season at the school. The numbers did not predict that a team returning a senior star in Bennie Boatwright and adding a budding freshman talent like Kevin Porter Jr. would never take liftoff.
A never-ending rash of injuries was a perfectly logical excuse for a sudden downturn, but even so, the numbers let the Trojans down in 2018-19, and an uncomfortable thing happened to the usually even Enfield: He had to confront the emotions that come with immense frustration.
Once it became clear the late-season momentum swing was never coming, he publicly questioned his players’ leadership. He yearned for some guys who could step to the line and make a clutch free throw (Enfield, after all, set the NCAA record for career free-throw percentage at Johns Hopkins). He wondered why he could not get through to veterans like big man Nick Rakocevic, who seemed to be on his way to some kind of record for flagrant fouls.
But through it all, Enfield did not have to stress about the big picture, despite consecutive seasons without an NCAA tournament berth, because in November he had signed a consensus top-five recruiting class.
Bringing in Isaiah Mobley, a McDonald’s All-American, and Onyeka Okongwu, The Times’ player of the year, validated Enfield’s program enough to look beyond the recent on-court disappointment and expect an emphatic rebound.
Two months after USC’s season ended in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals against Washington, Enfield sat for an interview in his Galen Center office last week and projected the confidence one would expect from a guy heading into Year 7 with a deep roster that includes the most intriguing freshman class he’s ever coached.
“I’m sure our practices will be a lot of fun this summer and in the fall,” Enfield said, almost knowingly. “There is a professionalism on our team now. It’s one thing to have talented players coming in, but if you look at the winning cultures that they’ve come from, it’s because of what they did. They were a part of that, and they helped establish that in their high school and AAU programs. I think freshmen are a huge part of any culture, and we expect them to be a big part of ours.”
College basketball lore is stocked with stories of freshman classes that changed the culture and whipped upperclassmen into shape. USC, which returns just four scholarship players from last season and no proven alpha dogs, should hope for such a scenario to unfold from the moment in June when Mobley, Okongwu, Max Agbonkpolo, Kyle Sturdivant and Ethan Anderson step foot on campus.
Strategically, USC will also bring in two new veterans who could evolve quickly into tone-setters in graduate transfers Daniel Utomi of Akron and Quinton Adlesh of Columbia.
Freshman Drake London, a scholarship football wide receiver who plans to play basketball as well, will add another serious athlete to the equation at some point. Noah Baumann, a San Jose State transfer who will sit out next season, will give USC a luxury it never had last season: an extra talented practice player.
Seniors Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews and sophomores Elijah Weaver and Charles O’Bannon Jr. are back after an offseason of attrition — USC lost point guard Derryck Thornton and little-used big men J’Raan Brooks and Victor Uyaelunmo to transfer and Porter to the NBA.
The blending of old and new faces will begin with 10 summer practices leading into USC’s three-game European trip Aug. 6-16, when the Trojans will play exhibitions in Barcelona, Spain, Paris and Cannes, France.
“Any good team has to find its identity fairly quickly and get off to a good start,” Enfield said, “and I think this foreign tour will help significantly. By the time school starts in the fall, hopefully we’ll be able to work towards some type of offensive and defensive identity.”
That didn’t happen last season. Boatwright was recovering from offseason knee surgery until mid-November, and even when he returned, he was getting his timing and strength back during nonconference play. Weaver missed training camp because of ankle surgery, and Porter missed seven weeks with a thigh bruise suffered in late November.
Once O’Bannon went out early with a finger injury that would sideline him for the season and Jordan Usher transferred midyear, the Trojans were severely undermanned. Enfield recalls a practice when USC had six players available.
Enfield will have 12 scholarship playersal this season plus London. Most importantly, USC will feature a formidable front line to anchor the lineup with the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic (an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick last season), the 6-9 Mobley and the 6-8 Okongwu.
“Bennie was more of a stretch four,” Enfield said. “So what we’re giving up is the three-point shooting of a guy like Boatwright, what we’re gaining is a more traditional two-big lineup where we should be able to score in the paint. We’ll have rim protection with Onyeka and Isaiah, and Nick has developed a little bit with shot blocking. We need consistency out of our front line from a defensive standpoint, which we didn’t really have last season.”
Finding a lead guard remains the most pressing issue for the Trojans, who spent last season looking for a replacement for Jordan McLaughlin and never found one. Weaver will have the inside track with a year in the program, and Mathews will be asked to play more with the ball in his hands.
These are the questions Enfield is weighing as he waits for a big summer to begin.
“This will be a different team than we’ve had in the last few years,” he said. “But I think the success of our team will be how much improvement our returning players have made and then how quickly our newcomers can come learn our system as well as come together and create their own identity.”