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Column: USC had a nice NCAA tournament run, but can Andy Enfield sustain it?

USC forward Evan Mobley loses the ball between Gonzaga forward Anton Watson and forward Drew Timme.
USC forward Evan Mobley loses the ball between Gonzaga forward Anton Watson, left, and forward Drew Timme, right, during the first half of an Elite Eight game in the NCAA tournament on Tuesday in Indianapolis.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

The shame wasn’t in the loss, but in how the game was lost.

USC wasn’t ready.

Coach Andy Enfield knew what was coming but failed to prepare his team for one of the most important games in program history.

The Trojans were confused.

They were overwhelmed.

And after 40 disorienting and disheartening minutes Tuesday night, they were out of the NCAA tournament, their visions of a March miracle destroyed by an 85-66 reality check from No.1 and unbeaten Gonzaga in the West Regional final.

USC was never in the game, down by seven points after only two minutes and 21 points after 14.

The Trojans couldn’t deal with Gonzaga’s defensive pressure, which they knew they would have to do. They couldn’t slow the Bulldogs down in transition, which they also knew they would have to do.

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“I think our players made some mistakes,” Enfield said. “They’re college basketball players, and that’s what happens sometimes.

“They were prepared to play.”

USC lost to top-seeded Gonzaga 85-66 in the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, ending the Trojans’ hopes of reaching the Final Four.

But the game was over by halftime, at which point Gonzaga was ahead 49-30.

Over the first 20 minutes, the Trojans committed seven turnovers that resulted in nine points for the Bulldogs. At the break, Gonzaga also had a 32-16 edge in points in the paint and a 7-2 advantage in second-chance points.

“They were denying the wings a lot,” USC freshman Evan Mobley said. “A lot of our plays involve a lot of swinging the ball, but we couldn’t swing the ball because our wings weren’t open necessarily. So it would cause the guard to go one-on-one, and sometimes it would cause a turnover.”

The first play of the game was a sign of what was to come, as Gonzaga’s tallest starter, 6-foot-10 center Drew Timme, stole the ball from Trojans guard Tahj Eaddy.

The Trojans didn’t have an answer, not for the Bulldogs’ defense and certainly not for Timme, who scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the first half.

USC entered the game looking as if it had the talent required to threaten Gonzaga, but a legitimate challenge never materialized.

Moving forward, the question the Trojans’ athletic department will have to ask itself is whether Enfield reached his ceiling in this tournament.

Highlights from USC’s loss to Gonzaga in the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA tournament.

As only the first USC team to advance to the Elite Eight in 20 years, these Trojans deserve to be celebrated.

But Enfield was hired to do more than this. He was expected to make the program relevant, both locally and nationally.

Doing that will require the Trojans to play at this level on close to an annual basis. But this particular team was built around an anticipated one-and-done player in Mobley and several transfers.

If as many players depart as expected, the Trojans won’t build on this tournament run next year as much as they will construct an entirely new team.

Kind of like what they had to do this season, when they returned only three players from their previous squad.

“We had a brand-new team, and they didn’t even get to know each other until school started,” Enfield said.

With campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Enfield pointed out, “Half of our team, we didn’t even meet in person until Sept.1.”

How the team came together in such a short period was cited by Enfield as evidence of what a special group it was.

He was right.

With UCLA winning over Michigan Tuesday night, Pac-12 has now broken the record for most upsets by a conference.

But there is a cost to starting from scratch at the beginning of the season, namely the ups and downs a team must endure to discover its identity. USC was one of the 10 most talented teams in the country — maybe even one of the top five — but was a No. 6 seed in this tournament.

Even with USC playing well in the postseason, the difference between a program that turns over its roster every year and one that doesn’t was painfully obvious in the loss to Gonzaga. The Bulldogs knew how to share the ball, how to defend as a group. That level of understanding takes years to develop, not months.

USC’s future seasons will determine how Enfield views this tournament, whether he refers back to it as part of his guide to success or reflects on the opening minutes of the Gonzaga game with regret, knowing it cost him his only chance of reaching a Final Four.


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