LOS ANGELES — Andy Enfield knew he had two players he could rely on entering this basketball season. Beyond Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, every Trojan either played a reserve or benchwarmer role the previous year or were still in high school.
It was difficult to predict what this USC season had in store, especially after a season-opening loss to Enfield’s old school, Florida Gulf Coast. A rebuild felt like the most likely outcome, given all the unknowns.
But after a mop-up role as a freshman, Kobe Johnson led the Pac-12 in steals and made the conference’s All-Defense team as a sophomore. Joshua Morgan also earned All-Defense honors in his first year as a starter, leading the conference in blocks.
Reese Dixon-Waters took an increased role and earned Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year. And guard Tre White rounded into his starting role and made the league’s All-Freshman team. And that’s not to mention freshmen like Kijani Wright and Oziyah Sellers earning playing time late in the season.
“This is probably the most improved team I’ve had at USC from beginning of the year to the end,” Enfield said.
This group of previously untested Trojans will face its biggest challenge this week as USC begins postseason play, starting Thursday with the Pac-12 quarterfinals in Las Vegas.
But true to his buoyant form, White is more exhilarated by the prospect than intimidated.
“This is still not hitting me. This is a dream come true,” White said, beaming. “It’s crazy. Family members I haven’t talked to in years hitting me like, ‘Good luck in March Madness, we’ll be watching.’ Like, oh, this is really that.”
This is the type of confidence Enfield has tried to instill in White. With USC in desperate need of a third scorer behind Ellis and Peterson, Enfield has encouraged White not to pass up good looks and to shake off misses and be ready for the next opportunity.
“I think it’s trust and confidence in us. Some coaches try to control every little narrative. But I feel like with Coach Andy, he gives us guidelines but he lets us be free,” White said. “I feel like that’s how we all got better [this] year. He doesn’t take our confidence away.”
Sometimes creating confidence in a young player can be trickier. Wright got early playing time for the Trojans as a backup to Morgan, but lost his spot in the rotation in the middle of the season as it was clear the freshman was not ready.
That could have had a devastating impact on the mental development of a young player. But Enfield and his staff tried to stay positive with him even when relegating him to the bench.
“We said, ‘Look, you got to be better in these areas.’ We were very specific with him: You have to be a better rebounder, you have to be a better defender,” Enfield said. “And he took that to heart, has really improved. He’s a tremendous worker and has such a positive attitude.”
All these improvements have the Trojans in a position that was difficult to predict in November. As the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, a win Thursday likely cements USC’s spot in the NCAA tournament.
Who USC plays Thursday will be decided late Wednesday night. Either USC faces sixth-seeded Arizona State for a second game in a row, or has to do some late cramming for 11th-seeded Oregon State.
Dixon-Waters missed practice Tuesday with illness but is expected to travel to Vegas. Center Vincent Iwuchukwu (back) will be a game-time decision Thursday. So it’s possible the Trojans are a little undermanned.
But compared to a few months ago, USC has young players ready to step up when called upon.
Adam Grosbard | Sports reporter Adam Grosbard covers USC athletics for the Orange County Register and Southern California News Group. He’s previously covered his alma mater SMU and the WNBA for the Dallas Morning News and high school sports for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. A Pasadena native, he currently lives in the South Bay.