Is This Season the Dawn of an L.A. Hoops Renaissance?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 22nd, 2017

USC basketball, much like UCLA football, has a long tenure in the City of Angels as the “other” program at its respective university. UCLA Basketball, while not having won a National Championship since 1995 and not having appeared in a Final Four since 2008, remains the King in one of the country’s most fertile basketball talent grounds. Disregarding the clear hierarchy, there hasn’t been a compelling reason why the Trojans couldn’t carve out a reputation for its own place in the high-level college basketball landscape. Ultimately, such a thing comes down to the coach and the money. With the first decade of the Galen Center now in the rear view, USC has clearly established a financial foundation for success. Now with Andy Enfield guiding the Trojans to what should be a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, it seems as if USC basketball is finally re-establishing itself as a perpetually successful program.

USC’s faithful on the hardwood might be on to something. (USC Athletics)

The question of whether Los Angeles’ Pac-12 schools are in the midst of a basketball renaissance hinges primarily on whether there was a concurrent stretch of basketball glory in the first place. The 2010-11 season was the last time that both teams qualified for the same NCAA Tournament, but USC’s loss in the First Four and UCLA’s defeat in the Second Round didn’t move the needle much nationally. Both programs also danced at the same time for a three-year stretch from 2007-09, although Ben Howland’s run of three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 vastly outshone Tim Floyd’s 2007 trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Since their departures, however, it’s been a struggle for both programs — USC, primarily — to regain elite status.

The Bruins have rejoined the national elite this year thanks to a strong freshman class led by future high-lottery lock Lonzo Ball. Like USC Football, the UCLA Basketball letters recruit for themselves, but USC basketball has not enjoyed that same level of brand recognition. Enfield has endeavored to overcome that problem by building a roster around southern California talent. Six major contributors are locals, with four in particular — Bennie Boatright (Mission Hills), Jordan McLaughlin (Etiwanda), De’Anthony Melton (North Hollywood), and Chimezie Metu (Lawndale) — forming the core of his roster.

That’s a big deal, because local players who do not end up at UCLA tend to have chips on their shoulders when they play the Bruins. Stanford won eight straight games at Pauley Pavilion (the longest opponent winning streak in UCLA history) powered primarily by southern Californians like Arthur Lee, Mike McDonald, Casey Jacobsen and Jarron and Jason Collins. There have been periodic spurts for USC basketball, but the question is whether Enfield can reach and surpass those past plateaus? Establishing the talent base is a crucial foundational step, but it has to be parlayed into consistent success on the court.

And that brings us to last weekend’s proceedings in Westwood. USC came into Pauley Pavilion carrying a four-game winning streak against the Bruins, a nice feather in Enfield’s cap. But a late UCLA offensive barrage combined with an ill-timed Trojans cold spell pretty much ended the competitive portion of the night. A 102-70 rout left us with the truly significant question: Can this local basketball rivalry reach a point where it becomes nationally relevant? UCLA appears on the precipice of a Final Four type of season, while USC is a likely NCAA Tournament team that nobody expects much from. The Bruins are playing for first in the conference, while USC is playing for a bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA’s roster is loaded with elite talent, while USC’s is loaded with local talent looking to prove themselves.

The question remains whether Enfield can maneuver into position to make up that ground, or if the ceiling for USC basketball is the same plateau that former coaches Henry Bibby and Tim Floyd settled for a decade ago. To reach a national rivalry status (in basketball, remember) is going to necessitate making up some ground. For Steve Alford, can he win the school’s 12th banner, and ultimately keep the Bruins at a sustained level of excellence? For the first time in a very long while, the pieces appear to be in place at the two major Los Angeles programs. Only time will tell the extent to which history is simply repeating itself or if the latest renaissance is the start of something truly unprecedented in the City of Angels.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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