Welcome to Year One. Not the cheesy 2009 Jack Black caveman flick, but the first season of USC basketball with new head coach Andy Enfield at the helm.
Eight players do return from last season’s 14-18 squad, as well as a couple transfers, but gone are the squad’s senior point guard, most reliable scorer and best post defender. Jio Fontan and Eric Wise graduated, while Dewayne Dedmon declared for the NBA draft and went unselected before signing with the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.
Senior forwards Aaron Fuller, Renaldo Woolridge and 7-foot-1 center James Blasczyk are also gone, their eligibility used up.
This year, a new set of leaders has to step up for the program. The obvious choice would seem to be junior guard Byron Wesley, who has started all of his 64 games in two seasons at USC. Wesley has been consistent throughout two tumultuous years, and being the only scholarship player on the roster with two years of experience at USC, he’ll be relied upon to lead whether he likes it or not.
“I hope so,” Enfield said concerning Wesley becoming a leader. “When you’re a junior or senior, you need to step up and realize that your college career is going to end pretty soon, so what are you going to do about it?”
A duo of seniors in center Omar Oraby and guard J.T. Terrell also return after both transfers from former head coach Kevin O’Neill’s tenure had up-and-down seasons in their first year at Troy.
Enfield has recruited two transfers himself this offseason in junior guard Pe’Shon Howard (University of Maryland) and senior 7-foot center D.J. Haley (Virginia Commonwealth), who will be eligible to play immediately and are in contention to start. Even though both recorded underwhelming scoring numbers last year at their previous schools — Howard averaged 3.3 points in 22.8 minutes per game while Haley averaged 1.9 points in 8.0 minutes per game — both are athletic for their position and seem like good fits for Enfield’s fast-paced system.
Sophomore point guard Chass Bryan, a walk-on who played significant minutes last season, is also in the running to start.
Sophomore guard Brendyn Taylor and forward Strahinja Gavrilovic also return, but what they can do on the court in a true game situation is still up in the air. The same goes for the four incoming freshmen, guards Julian Jacobs and Kahlil Dukes and forwards Roschon Prince and Nikola Jovanovic.
“They need a lot of development, but they’re talented enough to help us and we expect them to be contributors,” Enfield said.
As last year’s campaign showed, change can be a good thing. After going a program-worst 6-26 in a 2011-12 campaign littered with devastating injuries and an overall dearth of talent, O’Neill was on thin ice heading into last season. That ice cracked after the Trojans started 7-10, and in came longtime assistant Bob Cantu as the interim head coach.
The move was largely successful. After averaging 63.7 points per game in the 17 games of O’Neill, the squad averaged near 80 in Cantu’s first three games.
Even though the team fizzled out down the stretch, losing its last three games to finish 14-18 overall and out of the postseason again, the change was palpable. Players seemed more emotionally invested on the court, big wins over UCLA and Arizona resulted in a small upswing of excitement at the Galen Center and memories of the 2006-07 squad that ran to the Sweet 16 were fleeting, if not actualized.
O’Neill’s defense-based system never seemed to be fully embraced by his players or the fan base, but with Enfield, the book on change is still valid.
“We want to average in mid-70s,” Enfield said.
Cantu’s run-and-gun system was popular during his 7-8 run at the helm to close last year, but besides increased scoring, don’t expect Enfield to keep around much furniture from the previous regime.
“No,” Special Assistant to the Head Coach Dieter Horton simply said when asked if Enfield’s new system is at all similar to Cantu’s. “Other than giving players some freedom with responsibility.”
The mantra of change is also applicable to the coaching staff. Outside of Horton, who was an assistant coach on O’Neill’s staff, Enfield brought a slew of new assistants with him to USC.
Hired from San Diego State, Tony Bland is the new head recruiter and noted for his prowess on the recruiting trail.
“I’ve been in college basketball for over 20 years, and Tony has a real knack for his ability to relate to kids and sift through the process to find out who’s the decision-maker and who’s important in the recruiting process,” Horton said.
Local legend Jason Hart played 10 years in the NBA before being hired from Pepperdine, while Kevin Norris was an assistant under Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast University last year.
On the court, Enfield wants listeners to know that while dunking and “Lob City” are certainly part of his game plan, they’re a by-product rather than a strategy.
“The misconception is that we don’t just roll the balls out and start running,” he said. “We have a very structured system. We have a lot of screening action, and our defense caused a lot of our offense.”
Horton estimates that 95 percent of Enfield’s first four months at USC were focused on recruiting, and after spending 15 of 19 straight days on the road in July, Enfield didn’t disagree.
There’s already been a fair amount of roster fluctuation in the last month with the additions of Haley and Howard and the loss of senior forward Ari Stewart due to academic ineligibility, so a lot could change between now and the start of practice on Sept. 27.
The expectations during this transition year shouldn’t be sky-high, but for now, the optimism is.