The last time USC established itself as a lasting basketball power, sustaining success for more than a spare season or two at a time, its run of national relevance was unceremoniously interrupted by World War II. A month after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Sam Barry, the winningest basketball coach in school history, left the Trojans in January 1942 to enlist as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He’d return to coaching five seasons later, but even Barry, a member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame, never quite recaptured his prewar success at USC.
For the next 75 years, no Trojans coach could consistently. There were strong seasons along the way, of course. Forrest Twogood, an assistant of Barry’s, coached USC to its second Final Four appearance in 1954. Behind Paul Westphal and Mo Layton, Bob Boyd’s Trojans went 24-2 in the 1970-71 season, only to be held out of the tournament by John Wooden and his 29-1 Bruins. George Raveling, Tim Floyd and Henry Bibby all had their moments, too, each winning 24 or more games once.
But none of them ever managed to maintain their winning ways long enough for USC to find its foothold. Inevitably their paths were impeded by setbacks, be it bad timing, bad luck, or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“When you look at the history of USC basketball, there have been some great teams and great players and great coaches over the past 100 years,” Andy Enfield says. “But it’s been more like a rollercoaster. Lots of peaks and valleys.”
While the USC coach pondered the program’s uneven past from his office last week, his Trojans stood atop one of those peaks with plans to keep climbing. They’d parlayed an Elite Eight run last March into a scorching start; soon, they’d be 13-0, one of just two undefeated college basketball teams left in America. By the new year, USC was ranked in the top five of the AP poll for the first time since December 1974. Only Baylor, the other undefeated team left, won more over the last three seasons.
That success hadn’t always been so universally recognized. At USC, however, it earned Enfield an extension last spring through 2025-26. “He’s really established himself as an elite coach,” athletic director Mike Bohn told The Times.
“When you do it back-to-back-to-back in the time that I’ve worked with Andy, that’s extremely indicative of a program that’s on the rise.”
In his nine seasons at USC, the last two months have marked perhaps Enfield’s most impressive start yet — at the very least, it’s his most convincing proof that plans for sustained success at USC are coming to fruition. Without his top two scorers from last year’s run, including Evan Mobley, the odds-on favorite for NBA rookie of the year, the expectation was that the Trojans would take a significant step back. Instead, Enfield has USC dreaming of a deep tournament run again, even if most outside of USC’s locker room are still reluctant to believe.
“Everybody had questions,” senior forward Chevez Goodwin said. “How are they gonna fill that huge gap? They didn’t believe we could.”
When USC opened the season unranked, players said they talked hypothetically about going undefeated in nonconference play to prove those doubters wrong — only to proceed to do just that. The Trojans rolled through November and December boasting one of the nation’s top defenses, holding opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of only 40%.
They won their first dozen games, before the season came screeching to an abrupt halt.
The last three years had, in large part, been defined by sudden setbacks. USC was playing its best basketball in March 2020 when the NCAA tournament was canceled because of COVID-19. The next season, the most talented player in program history played his lone USC campaign in front of an empty arena because of COVID. And this season, just as USC was finding its stride, the program was forced to shut down amid an outbreak of the virus.
Soon after the team landed back in Los Angeles, following a win over Georgia Tech on a Dec. 12 trip to Phoenix, the majority of USC’s fully vaccinated roster and staff tested positive for COVID-19. A locker room-wide outbreak spurred by the Omicron variant sent most of them into quarantine, with players confined to their respective rooms for 10 days. Two games were postponed, one was canceled. It would be 19 days before USC played again, a stretch that included a Christmas spent in isolation. The Mobleys were forced to take their Christmas photos over FaceTime, as both boys were stuck in isolation on opposite corners of the map.
For Isaiah Mobley, it was particularly unfortunate timing, even apart from having to order his Christmas hot cocoa via DoorDash. The eldest Mobley brother had just found his stride before the shutdown arrived, stepping successfully into the starring role vacated by his brother — a role few expected he’d be capable of replicating.
“We were very clear with him that if he came back for his third year in college, then he would have to be a true inside-outside player and take a high volume of threes,” Enfield said of Isaiah Mobley. “He worked really hard in the offseason on his perimeter shooting, his ballhandling, his finishing in the lane.”
The fruits of that labor have been unimpeachable. A more confident Mobley leads the Pac-12 in rebounds per game (9.5), while averaging 15.3 points per game, just a single point behind his brother’s average from last season. He’s shooting 44% from long range, with more three-point attempts already this season than all of his sophomore campaign.
“Last year, he put more pressure on himself,” says point guard Ethan Anderson, who lives with Mobley. “This year, he’s just having fun with it. That really allows him to play freely. We’re calling sets for him. He’s the main focus of our offense.”
But it’s USC’s balance that makes it particularly dangerous. Four Trojans are averaging in double figures, including Goodwin and transfer point guard Boogie Ellis, each of whom have been crucial cogs for USC on both ends. That’s made replacing Evan Mobley a much more manageable task.
“All of us got so much better that we were kind of able to fill in for [Mobley] together, without it ever having to be said,” Anderson said. “We all wanted bigger roles. We all were ready for our turn.”
When finally USC emerged from its lengthy layoff, none of them were exactly primed and ready to pick up where they left off. Ten days away had completely thrown off their timing. Their conditioning slipped. Coaches spent the first few days on skills and drills, just to refresh the players’ muscle memory.
“It was so bad,” Eric Mobley, Isaiah’s father and USC’s assistant, said with a laugh.
But the timing gradually came back, as USC quickly shook off the rust on the road at California, beating the Bears handily in Berkeley, 77-63. Mobley scored 19, dominating down the stretch. And USC soared up the AP poll, into the top five, as if its smooth return had suddenly calmed voters’ nerves.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before more doubts would arise. Five days later, in Palo Alto, Stanford would catch fire from the field, just as USC went cold, hitting only 29% from three-point range and 65% of its free throws. Even as Mobley came alive after halftime, scoring 13 in the second half, USC couldn’t withstand a late push from the Cardinal. Its undefeated streak ended in a 75-69 afternoon defeat to Stanford, its first loss in the state of California since Feb. 28, 2019.
What comes next, as USC returns home after its first loss to face Oregon and Oregon State, will say a lot about the direction the Trojans plan to take from here.
But after all the adversity of the last three seasons, after the Elite Eight run and the 13-0 start, there’s confidence within USC’s program that Enfield has settled into a formula for success that’s finally built to last.
“The culture we set here, we know that this method works,” Anderson said. “We know Coach [Chris] Capko’s [defensive] scheme, Coach Andy’s offense, we know they work. We know that the plays work. We know if we execute them, we’re going to win. When we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we’re going to be hard to beat. One through eight, I just don’t believe there’s too many teams in the country better than us.”
Thursday vs. Oregon State, 8 p.m., Galen Center, ESPNU — The No. 5 Trojans (13-1, 3-1 Pac-12) will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Stanford on Tuesday. Oregon State (3-11, 1-3) has struggled this season and had 10 days off because of COVID issues before falling to rival Oregon on Monday. Guard Jarod Lucas (13.8 ppg) and forward Warith Alatishe (11.8 ppg) lead the Beavers in scoring.