U.S. Markets open in 2 hrs 8 mins

USC's basketball season is teetering on the brink of disaster

Andy Enfield talks to his players during USC’s 88-81 loss to Washington. (Getty)

LOS ANGELES — The most disingenuous statement in college basketball this season came this week from USC coach Andy Enfield. In the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Enfield was quoted about how much the federal investigation into basketball that USC’s program is ensnared in has impacted the Trojans. “Not at all,” Enfield replied.

Well, let’s see. So far, the FBI investigation has cost USC its associate head coach, Tony Bland, starting guard, De’Anthony Melton, and its most ballyhooed 2018 recruit, Top 30 prospect Taeshon Cherry. USC began the season in the preseason Top 10 and is now sitting on the outside of NCAA mock tournament projections.

Without blaming the feds, the culpability for USC’s free fall to one of the sport’s biggest disappointments should be directed to Enfield himself. Fourteen games into a season that began with Final Four expectations, USC is 9-5 after falling to a solid but unspectacular Washington team, 88-81, at home on Friday night. The Trojans have zero wins within the RPI’s Top 40, three double-digit losses and sit at No. 43 in the KenPom rankings.

USC responded to winning the Diamond Head Tournament in Hawaii last week by putting on a historically bad defensive performance against the Huskies. Washington shot 62 percent against USC’s zone in the first half and an astonishing 73 percent against USC’s man-to-man defense in the second half. The overall 67 percent for the game was the highest shooting percentage USC yielded since 2003. (Take a bow, Koko Archibong and Penn.)

But statistics and generational lowlights can’t quantify how viscerally painful it was to watch USC slog its way through the Washington game at the Galen Center. USC put on an ode to the undisciplined, a case study in a team lacking motivation and camaraderie.

“I usually take the blame for losses, and obviously every game goes on my record as a head coach,” Enfield said. “But tonight, I was very disappointed in some of our upperclassmen defensively. You can blame me for not motivating them or getting them to play up to their capability. They have to go home and look in the mirror and come back and play better basketball if we’re going to have a chance to win games in this league.”

That precious accountability pretzel logic would make Gregg Popovich throw up in his mouth. USC’s zone had all the energy of a hungover college freshman in an 8 a.m. biology lecture. And when Enfield switched to man-to-man in the second half, things got precipitously worse, as Washington shot 19-for-26. “Sometimes in a shooting drill, you can’t make that high of a percentage,” he said, later adding: “Our defense was just terrible. We played soft.”

From the opening tip, Washington’s entire bench popped up in unison when 3-pointers were in the air, dunks finished and turnovers forced. USC’s bench had one engaged walk-on who’d pop up occasionally – congrats, Kurt Karis – and appeared emotionally invested. Everyone else on the Trojan bench appeared ambivalent.

USC star big men Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, who are both draftable NBA players, combined for 50 points, but contributed to the lackluster defensive effort. They are quintessentially tantalizing offensive talents who showed little interest in other aspects of the game.

Matisse Thybulle celebrates during Washington’s 88-81 win over USC as Trojans forward Bennie Boatwright looks on. (AP)

“They rely on one guy to go off,” said an assistant coach who scouted USC this year. “And the other guys just watch.”

Things were so loose for USC that injured guard Derryck Thornton, who was on the bench during the game, was sitting on a stairwell during halftime chatting on FaceTime. Let’s just say that Thornton’s former coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, would have spontaneously combusted if he’d seen that in Durham. If Friday night’s tilt against Washington were a match-up of engagement, enthusiasm and culture, it was a No. 1 versus No. 16 match-up.

Washington improved to 11-3 in head coach Mike Hopkins’ debut season, and this victory ushered the Huskies into the throes of the NCAA tournament conversation. Washington has won every game it’s supposed to, stunned Kansas in Kansas City and ambushed USC on Friday night thanks to five players scoring in double digits. Noah Dickerson led Washington with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, as the sum of the Huskies proved greater than their parts. (Washington has no players on the NBA’s immediate radar.)

“The greatest thing about the Kansas game,” Hopkins said by phone after the game, “was that it validated that if we played this way, it showed we can beat anyone.”

The Galen Center on Friday night looked one-tenth full at tip and felt as intimidating as a growling Chihuahua in a starlet’s purse. How can the Trojan basketball team avoid a similar circle of disappointment that USC football showed when sputtering from grandiose early-season expectations to a 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl?

“We have to come together as a team and understand that you have an opportunity every time you step on the basketball court,” Enfield said. “If you can’t get in your stance and guard someone and give the effort, then you should probably be on the bench.”

Enfield deflected questions about this USC free fall by saying that preseason rankings don’t mean anything. He also brought up legitimate injury issues that have hounded the Trojans, including four injured players being out during their loss to Princeton. Then there’s Melton, who is USC’s best defender. Enfield offered an update on the federal investigation without being prompted. “We still don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know the information at this point. I have nothing new to say or comment on.”

Enfield may be frustrated at the lack of information, but he’s the one who hired Bland, made him associate head coach and set the culture that led to the alleged corruption. There’s a fragility around all the programs ensnared in the federal investigation, with USC and Louisville competing for biggest federally-inspired free falls. Louisville’s Rick Pitino already lost his job and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Arizona’s Sean Miller are sweating every legal development in the federal probe. It’d be naïve to think there won’t be more fallout, as Enfield has to know the caliber of the stakes.

With Melton out indefinitely, USC’s defense holding up a neon “NO VACANCY” sign and ambiguity coming from the feds, USC’s season is teetering on the brink of disaster. Enfield can downplay the role that the FBI has played in USC’s disappointment, but that just highlights what a poor job he’s done coaching this team.

Neither are great options. But perhaps the best thing Enfield can do is take a long look in the accountability mirror before suggesting his players do the same.