Andy Enfield is Winning News Cycles at USC, But Will He Win Games?Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 17th, 2013
You don’t have to know the 5 from the 405 from the 110 to know that USC and UCLA don’t much get along. They’re two institutions of higher learning located about 14 miles (which equates to what, an hour or so?) apart in a city that can often take or leave college athletics. Proponents of one university will talk up all the positives about their preference while detailing all the negatives about the other, but without a doubt, from athletics to the arts to academics, each school measures itself against the other. Hell, even neuroscience labs are fair game for the rivalry. There’s the Coliseum and Pauley Pavilion. John Wooden and John McKay. John Wayne and Jackie Robinson. Arthur Ashe and Jerry Buss. Not to mention all those Heisman trophies and all those basketball national championship banners.
But therein lies the rub. Just like UCLA has regularly been considered the little brother on the football side of the equation, USC basketball has always taken a backseat to the hoops program uptown. And when you’re a new head coach for the Trojans basketball program, your goal is to catch up with and eventually surpass the Bruins. All of which is preamble to say that while things certainly haven’t been especially friendly between the two programs since Andy Enfield was hired at USC and Steve Alford was hired at UCLA back in the spring, the arms race between these two just ramped up a little more yesterday when Jeff Faraudo quoted Enfield thusly: “We play up-tempo basketball here. If you want to play slow, go to UCLA.” Shots fired.
Now look, Enfield didn’t break out that line specifically for the media at his introductory presser or at today’s Pac-12 Media Day; he (presumably) hollered it at his players in the middle of an in-practice scrimmage. Enfield is a guy whose basketball personality is getting his team to play with tempo, getting up and down the court, throwing lobs, knocking down threes, playing an entertaining brand of basketball. Meanwhile, he’s coming to a USC program that, since Tim Floyd took over the program in 2006, got slower every season in terms of possessions, right up until last season when they actually took a jump forward in terms of tempo. Still, Enfield is taking over a program whose recent history has been an absurdly ugly form of basketball. And he wants that to change and he wants to drill that into his players. It certainly doesn’t hurt if, while drilling that concept of uptempo ball into his guys’ heads, he also gets to take a shot at the cross-town rival; he wants his guys to have some animosity for the blue and gold. And, really, it hurts even less if the reporter watching the practice hears the line and slams it into the lede on his story. Not only did his players get the message about picking up the pace and a healthy hatred for the bitter rival, but the fans (assuming there actually are USC basketball fans) get that red meat to chew on. Best of all, potential recruits in the Los Angeles area who may be considering both schools get the reinforcement that USC basketball is new and fun and exciting and UCLA basketball is old and slow and stodgy.*
Really, this is just another lit bit of momentum on Enfield’s side and another small dent in Alford’s reputation. Over the past six months or so, the USC momentum meter is pointing straight up, while UCLA’s is stalling. But, here’s the thing. Over the course of those months, neither team has played so much as a single game. And when those games do tip off in, wow, less than a month now, big brother is expected to be the far superior team. UCLA’s right in the mix with a handful of other teams being picked to finish somewhere behind Arizona, while USC is generally regarded as a strong contender for the basement in the Pac-12. Nothing will kill a program’s momentum faster than a string of losses and an early end to the season. Conversely, nothing will boost a program’s momentum better than winning. Yes, Andy Enfield continues to win the news cycles, but Alford’s got something a bit more valuable up his sleeve – a very nice hand.
*One minor quibble, however, not to let facts get in the way of a good rant or anything, but last year slow old boring UCLA was actually faster under Ben Howland in terms of tempo than even Florida Gulf Coast, much less USC. UCLA averaged slightly more possessions per game than FGCU and offensively used less time per possession (the average UCLA offensive possession in 2012-13 ended with better than 19 seconds remaining on the shot clock). Yes, the Bruins will most assuredly be slower this season under Alford, especially minus graduated point guard Larry Drew II. Contrasting, USC will certainly be faster than they were last year, but what seems to be accepted wholesale as fact (USC=fast, UCLA=slow) remains to be seen, especially given that one of USC’s key players this season is expected to be 7’2, 270-pound center Omar Oraby, a guy not exactly known for his excellence in transition.