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Column: USC spears Kansas to showcase the arrival of a major power

USC men's basketball coach Andy Enfield
USC men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield watches his team play against Kansas on Monday.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Andy Enfield came to USC in 2013 as the hottest coach in college basketball, fresh from leading the “Dunk City” darlings of Florida Gulf Coast University to upsets of Georgetown and San Diego State before they lost to No. 3 Florida in the Sweet 16.

As the successor to Kevin O’Neill, who had taken the Trojans to the NCAA tournament once and was fired with 15 games left in his fourth season, Enfield inherited a foundering program. He promised that his team would play an up-tempo game. Players would have room to be creative, and they’d enjoy themselves.

Not at first they didn’t. Neither did he.

“In the first two years, we were last place in the Pac-12,” Enfield said. “Year 1 and 2 we were dead last. We were 5-31 in Pac-12 play.”

On Monday, not quite eight years after Enfield arrived to reorganize USC’s men’s program, the Trojans arrived as a major power.

“Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to win, especially in Los Angeles. If you don’t, it’s not fun,” Enfield said. “But our players have done this the right way.”

Behind stellar play from Isaiah and Evan Mobley, USC punches its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007 with a win over Kansas.

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The Trojans’ 85-51 rout of Kansas on Monday in the second round of the West regional was stunning in its thoroughness. USC’s stifling defense held the Jayhawks to 29% shooting, a remarkably good follow-up after they’d held Drake to 29.4% shooting from the floor in the first round.

Freshman forward Evan Mobley, a generational talent, shared the spotlight with his older brother, sophomore Isaiah, who had a game-high 17 points in addition to eight rebounds, four assists and one block. The brothers from Murrieta combined for 21 points in the first half, which matched the Jayhawks’ team total.

“This is what you always dream for,” Isaiah Mobley said after the Trojans clinched their first berth in the Sweet 16 since 2007.

Like so many dreams, this one came true because of hard work — and because of Enfield’s vision in the face of frustration. He persisted through those first two miserable seasons of 11-21 and 12-20 records, turning things around for a 21-13 finish in 2016 and a first-round NCAA tournament exit. The next season, the Trojans were 26-10 overall and made a second-round departure.

Evan Mobley, the star 7-footer of USC’s basketball team, is selected as the Pac-12’s player of the year, defensive player of the year and freshman of the year.

The Trojans reached the second round of the NIT in 2018 but took a step back in 2019, with a 16-17 record. Their 2020 postseason hopes were wiped out, as were everyone else’s, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This season, playing in a conference that was badly underestimated by those who saw it only occasionally if at all, the Trojans were ranked as high as No. 17 nationally. They lost to Colorado in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament but recovered well, taking care of business against Drake in the NCAA tournament, and bringing the same efficient, focused approach against Kansas.

The Trojans steamrolled the Jayhawks from the start Monday at Hinkle Fieldhouse and never stopped, taking a significant step in a progression that seemed unlikely when Enfield was the new kid in town and the basketball world wondered if his success at small-time FGCU had been just a big-time fluke.

“We came out tonight, we were extremely hungry. The coaches were just as hungry as our players,” Enfield said.

That showed against Kansas, which got leading rebounder Jalen Wilson out of COVID-19 protocols only Monday morning and got forward David McCormack back from a bout with the coronavirus before its first-round game against Eastern Washington.

“I think they were obviously more prepared, played better, coached better,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of USC. “We shot it miserably.

“We played from a hole the entire time. That’s about as poor as we could play. I’m sure Andy would say that’s certainly one of their better moments, better games. It was a bad combination all the way around for us.”

USC made it worse for the Jayhawks at both ends of the floor. “Our offense, I felt like we really shared the ball and took good shots. We have had silly turnovers at times,” Enfield said. “But Kansas is such a good defensive team. To score over 80 points, they’re a top-10 defensive team in the country. I thought our players made the right plays, they were patient and they were poised.

“It all starts with defense for us. I’m really, really proud of our defense tonight.”

The Trojans were hoping to win their first outright conference title since 1961, but Oregon beat Oregon State on Sunday to win the championship.

Enfield credited assistant coaches Jason Hart, Chris Capko and Eric Mobley —the Mobley brothers’ father — for helping bring stability to a program that badly needed it not so long ago. As he noted, the Trojans have won at least 20 games in five of the last six seasons, and they’re 46-16 the past two seasons, third behind Baylor and Kansas.

“And we just beat Kansas today,” he said. “Look, we know we haven’t won a national championship yet, but we’ve really improved our program, and we’re extremely proud of where we are right now at USC basketball.”

Enfield began his postgame remarks by dedicating the win to his late father, Bill, a former high school and ninth-grade basketball coach in Shippensburg, Pa. Bill Enfield died in September, shortly before his 80th birthday.

“He meant a lot to me. I thought about him a lot,” Enfield said. “In fact, I saw a picture right before the game that my mother sent me, at a table with his board out, his note cards from coaching. He was giving me advice.”

Here’s some advice for Oregon on Sunday and for every other team still dancing: Watch out for USC.


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