USC basketball coach Andy Enfield already had an obvious challenge leading into this season, having to replace his top five leading scorers, including two four-year seniors in Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews and a projected first-round NBA draft pick in Onyeka Okongwu.
And then came the fallout from the coronavius pandemic, which kept the Trojans off the court all summer and through the first part of the fall, unable to even begin the process of assimilating five incoming transfers and two freshmen — the bulk of whom will have to contribute this season.
“It was tough because a lot of teams in our league were practicing this summer and teams all over the country were practicing and doing their summer workouts and their fall workouts once school started, and we weren’t. We were not allowed in the gym,” Enfield said in an interview with TrojanSports.com. “And the state of California finally allowed us back in as of [Oct. 1].”
But those summer workouts are invaluable for any college basketball team, and especially one in a pretty substantial rebuild, and the truth is that time can’t be recovered.
“Nothing was available in the summer. Our players stayed home in the summer. They did not come to campus. Once school started, a few weeks in our facilities did put some baskets on the tennis court and we were able to work out with masks on. Every player had to have their own basketball — they couldn’t pass the ball to each other, so it was a little challenging in 95 degree heat with humidity,” Enfield said. “The coaches wore gloves so they could pass it to us and we could pass it back to them. They had to get their own rebound and go to the back of the line. … It wasn’t the most ideal setting.
“We basically lost two and a half months of individual workouts, working with our guys in small groups, putting some team concepts in. So yeah, there is a disadvantage. However, we’re just very thankful that the presidents of the Pac-12 decided to have us participate with the rest of the country, and also we’re appreciative of the state of California for finally allowing us to get back in the gym.”
That’s the silver lining, if there is one. After initially having the Pac-12 rule in August that there would be no sports in the conference until at least Jan. 1, the Trojans and their league mates will now get to start along with the rest of the country on Nov. 25. (The official schedule has not yet been released.)
The Trojans were able to begin formal preseason practice last Wednesday, and now the focus is no longer on what the team lost out on this summer and fall but what it has to do over this next month-plus to fit all these puzzle pieces together and develop a starting lineup and rotation.
“I can tell you since the beginning of school this team has a lot of chemistry, they’re hard workers and we have a good mix of grad transfers with some experience. We have some talented freshmen. And we have some returnees that have been in our system for a year, and we expect all our guys to have to play big minutes for us this year because our roster’s very lean,” Enfield said. “We only have nine scholarship players eligible, so we have to stay healthy and we have to have our players that are playing produce for us.”
Rebuilding through the transfer portal
For the second year in a row, USC had to rebuild the bulk of its roster — but this time the the Trojans had to address most of their needs through the transfer market, which has become a swinging door for this program.
The Trojans first lost three players to the transfer portal, with guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. leaving during the season and guards Kyle Sturdivant and Elijah Weaver departing after the season.
That left USC with no secondary ball-handler behind starting point guard Ethan Anderson. The most surprising was Weaver’s transfer (to Dayton). Even though he was frustrated with his usage last season (6.6 points, 22 minutes per game), he projected to have a key role after Sturdivant transferred to Georgia Tech.
“Yes, we were surprised,” Enfield said. “We really enjoyed coaching Elijah. He’s a wonderful young man. If we weren’t meeting his expectations, that’s a personal decision he made. We have to move on. He’s moved on. He helped us win some games this year, we wish him the best.”
In general, though, Enfield has learned not to be surprised by any such moves. He rattled off the statistics that he says averages out to three transfers per every Division I team each year.
“This is probably the most we’ve ever had, but once again, we have 13 scholarships and you can only play five guys at once, so the reason that number is so high is that players, when they choose a school, they have certain expectations, which is internal, and they also have expectations from people around them,” he said. “And if they don’t feel like they’re achieving those expectations or the results are not there after a year or two a lot of players decide the grass is greener on the other side, so they leave. It happens all over the country.”
And those same dynamics would provide the avenue for USC to eventually rebuild its roster.
Last year, USC brought in a large freshman class of five scholarship signees (plus dual-sport walk-on Drake London) and supplemented that with two graduate transfers in Daniel Utomi (from Akron), who became a starter midseason and finished fourth on the team in scoring at 8.2 points per game, and Quinton Adlesh (from Columbia), who averaged 11.9 minutes per game in a reserve role.
This year, the Trojans signed just two freshmen in 7-foot five-star center Evan Mobley — the No. 4-ranked prospect in the country — and 3-star 6-foot-10 forward Boubacar Coulibaly.
So Enfield and his staff reversed the balance and filled the rest of their needs on the transfer market, landing five newcomers (three who are expected to be eligible this year) in grad transfers Tahj Eaddy (Santa Clara), Isaiah White (Utah Valley) and Chevez Goodwin (Wofford) and undergraduate transfers Joshua Morgan (Long Beach State) and Drew Peterson (Rice).
The challenge was none of those transfers got to visit campus or meet with the staff before signing on with the Trojans.
“It was a little tougher this year because the five transfers we signed, they had never been on campus. We had never met them in person, so it’s very unusual. As a staff we got a great feel and [felt] we have five terrific young men that are going to be great Trojans,” Enfield said. “… But you try to get a feel quickly about who they are as people, talking to a few people around them, their families and you try to get a good feel for what they’re looking for and see if it fits what we’re looking for. …
“We were fortunate this year where the majority of the players we spoke to ended up coming here. Some years it’s a little different, but the players that we spoke to they were relatively short recruiting processes. Because they couldn’t come on campus, they knew they weren’t able to take visits, so the recruiting process was sped up a little bit this spring for not just our program but everybody.”
The Trojans also add in guard Noah Baumann, who sat out last season after transferring in from San Jose State, to join sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley (6.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG last season); Anderson, the sophomore point guard (5.5 PPG, 4.2 APG); and sophomore forward Max Agbonkpolo (2.5 PPG in limited minutes).
So how do all those pieces fit together? That’s what this preseason is for, but Enfield discussed with TrojanSports.com what appealed to the Trojans about each of the newcomers and how he sees that puzzle coming together.
Scouting reports on the new guys
Tahj Eaddy, 6-2 guard, redshirt senior, grad transfer from Santa Clara: Averaged 15.0 points per game two seasons ago as a full-time starter for Santa Clara before averaging 9.1 points as a part-time starter last year. Eaddy will serve as the Trojans’ secondary ballhandler behind Ethan Anderson.
Enfield: “Tahj is a proven shooter. He averaged 15 a game as a sophomore, last year he averaged about 10 points a game. So we definitely need some scoring from him and playmaking. He has the capability of putting the ball on the floor and getting in the lane. He has a nice hesitation, quick first step and he’s a proven player at a high level.”
Chevez Goodwin, 6-9 forward, redshirt senior, grad transfer from Wofford: Averaged 11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while starting all 35 games for Wofford.
Enfield: “He’s a very good back-to-the-basket scorer and is expanding his overall game. He was very efficient and productive in the minutes he played last year at Wofford and is a guy that we think can step into the Pac-12 and make an immediate impact.”
Isaiah White, 6-7 guard/forward, redshirt senior, grad transfer from Utah Valley: Averaged 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds in 21 games last season, making 18 starts.
Enfield: “We don’t have anybody like him on our team. We think he’s a great complement to our other players because he’s a big-time athlete. He’s a slasher, he’s a runner, he’s a tremendous rebounder for his size. He’s about 6-7, 205, 210 pounds. He’s not a big forward — he’s a combo forward that can play multiple positions. He can play on the wing, he can play the power forward for us and guard 1-5.”
Noah Baumann, 6-6 guard, redshirt junior, sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State: A career 45.7-percent 3-point shooter over his two seasons at San Jose State — setting program records — and averaged 10.8 points as a sophomore.
Enfield: “Not too many people around the country shoot the ball at that level like Noah does. He’s a proven 46, 47-percent 3-point shooter at San Jose State for two seasons and to do that two years in a row is quite impressive. This is a higher level and he adjusted well last year. It took him a while to get used to the athleticism that our team had in practice because we were so good defensively last year. Every day in practice you got a guy like Jonah Mathews guarding him, who’s first-team All-Pac-12 defensive team, and other guys like Ethan Anderson and Max with those long arms, Daniel Utomi with his physicality. So we had great practices last season and Noah was in the thick of that and tried to learn how to play against smaller, quicker guys like Jonah, bigger guys like Utomi and bigger, longer guys like Max, and oh by the way when you go in the lane and try shoot a little floater, Big O is there waiting to block your shot. Noah really improved and we’re very proud of his development so far.”
Evan Mobley, 7-foot center, freshman: The No. 4-ranked prospect in the country and the younger brother of Isaiah Mobley. He was the 2020 Morgan Wooten High School Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American and two-time California Gatorade Player of the Year and averaged 20.5 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.2 blocks and 4.6 assists during his senior season at Rancho Christian School.
Enfield: “You would hope if you’re 7-feet tall and you’re ranked either 1, 2 or 3 (or 4)in the country depending on what scouting service that you’d be ready to come in mentally and physically with your skill sets and be productive and help us win games. So that’s what we’re expecting of him, just like Onyeka did [last season]. When you’ve got a guy like Evan who is such an unselfish offensive player — he’s a great passer, willing passer, he can score the ball in the lane at a high level. He’s also worked on his midrange and three-point shooting. But defensively he’s just terrific. He touches over 12 feet on the backboard and when you can get an elite shot blocker in there to play along some of our other bigs, we should have a pretty good frontline, especially on the defensive end.”
Boubacar Coulibaly, 6-foot-10 forward, freshman: Averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds for San Gabriel Academy. The 3-star prospect is originally from Mali.
Enfield: “We think Boubacar has a great chance to be productive this year and play for us. It’s going to be depending on, there’s an adjustment for freshmen coming in and we know that, but he’s talented, he’s just a super person, hard worker. He’s only been in the United States three years. He came over from Mali, didn’t know English, didn’t know a word of English other than hello and thank you. And he succeeded academically, he succeeded on the basketball court, and we just love him as a person and as a basketball player.”
Those are the additions expected to be available for the Trojans, while Peterson and Morgan “most likely will sit out” this season as undergraduate transfers, Enfield said.
But to summarize, the Trojans are counting on one of the most high-profile freshmen in the country to be great immediately (like Okongwu was last year), for another freshman to develop quickly and for four transfers from a lower level of college basketball to prove their skill sets can transfer to the Pac-12.
“I think you saw last year with Daniel Utomi ended up starting for us, averaging about 10 points a game and was very solid. He had some big games for us. … Daniel averaged 14 and 6 at Akron for three years. So I think when players move up a level or two like a lot of grad transfers do, there is a slight adjustment, but based on their experience level and their maturity, most of them are able to handle it,” Enfield said. “The better ones are able to handle that and just seamlessly go into a power conference and produce. … We believe all three of our grad transfers will be very productive for us this year.”
And they’ll need to be. But more to the point, all of the players new and returning will need to come together in short order.
Ultimately, it just might be Enfield’s toughest coaching challenge of his Trojans tenure, but he projected confidence despite the obstacles.
“It’s a very, very similar situation as last year. The difference is Jonah and Nick were senior and had been in our program three years, whereas Max, Isaiah and Ethan have only been in our program one year. But that’s what these players sign up for. They want to have the opportunity to produce and play,” Enfield said. “Freshmen when they become sophomores need to take a big jump, and we have two talented freshmen coming in. So we expect our team to be very talented. And it was important for our staff to go and try get three graduate transfers to give us some experience, some toughness and some guys that have been in big games over the course of their college career, and I think we got three really good ones.”