In signing new head coach Andy Enfield away from Florida Gulf Coast University on April 1, Athletic Director Pat Haden hoped that the splashy hire would turn around a men’s basketball program in dire need of an injection of excitement. After being overshadowed by crosstown rival UCLA for years, Haden’s hire of Enfield was at least more successful in building buzz than the Bruins’ tabbing of Steve Alford.
Friday will be the first chance to see if the new-look Trojans can carry over that success to the court. USC heads to Logan, Utah to take on Utah State in their first regular-season game under Enfield on Friday at 6:05 p.m.
Enfield will look to become the second coach in USC’s history to win his first game as head coach, with Kevin O’Neill in the 2009-2010 season being the only one to accomplish that feat. Enfield hopes to continue his past coaching success, which begins and ends with being the first coach in NCAA history to lead a No. 15 seed to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, in one of the strongest top-to-bottom conferences in college basketball.
“I want our players to be confident and think about what they’re doing now, not what happened in the past,” Enfield said. “As far as the old coaching staff, I give them a lot of credit because we have very good players on our team. I understand the nature of this business. Sometimes there is change, and I walked into a situation where there was change. So I’m very sensitive to that, but also I want our players to focus on the future and what we’re trying to do right now.”
USC finished last year with a 14-18 record, including 9-9 in Pac-12 play, an improvement after finishing 6-26 and setting a school record for losses the season before. The team had big conference wins over UCLA and Arizona on the road, as well as a 7-8 record after O’Neill’s firing on Jan. 15, giving a glimpse of a team ready to turn things around.
Despite the big coaching change, the Trojans are projected to finish 11th in an extremely deep Pac-12, ahead of only Washington State. The Pac-12 features three teams ranked in the AP Top 25 in No. 6 Arizona, No. 19 Oregon and No. 22 UCLA, while Colorado, Arizona State, Washington and Stanford all received votes.
“Most of our team is new anyways, so no one knows anything about our players, and no one knows how we’re going to play,” senior center Omar Oraby said about the projections. “We have a whole new coaching staff and a whole new style, so that doesn’t really mean anything to us because no one knows anything about us yet.”
USC’s nonconference schedule is a little more manageable after their game against the Aggies, but still features games against Villanova and Boston College, which both received votes in the AP poll. The most interesting date on the nonconference schedule will be Nov. 29, when the Trojans could potentially square off against No. 5 Kansas in the Bahamas in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. The Jayhawks also made a big splash in the offseason by signing No. 1 recruit and projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins.
“We have a challenging schedule right now,” Enfield said. “Our first game is probably one of the toughest games on our schedule.”
The Aggies finished last season with a 21-10 record, finishing fourth in the Western Athletic Conference with an 11-7 record. They lost 83-78 in the WAC Quarterfinals to UT Arlington in their final season in the WAC, and are now playing in the Mountain West Conference for the first time. The Aggies are slated to finish fourth in the Mountain West this year in the preseason media poll, which projects well for Utah State since the conference sent five teams to the NCAA tournament last season.
“They’re a great team,” senior guard Pe’shon Howard said about the Aggies. “They’re picked second in the Mountain West, so people know about them. They’re a very experienced team and they can shoot the lights out.”
Utah State returns its top three scorers from last season, led by guard Preston Medlin’s 16.3 points per game. Center Jarred Shaw averaged 14.2 points per game and led the team with 8.4 rebounds per game, while swingman Spencer Butterfield averaged 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
“It’s a tough way to start the season, but as a basketball player, this is why you come to ’SC, for big games,” Howard said. “That’s a great way to start our season off and just take advantage of the opportunity.”
USC is 6-4 all-time against the Aggies, with a 52-50 loss in the Maui Invitational in 1999 being their last contest.
“Utah State’s an experienced team with a lot of seniors and juniors,” Enfield said. “They’re one of the best teams on our schedule, regardless of what conference they’re in. We have our hands full. They win about 90 percent of their home games, and they have one of the best coaches in the country.”
Their coach, Stew Morrill, has a record of 324-103 (.759) in 15 seasons with the Aggies, including a 193-13 (.937) record at home.
After their match against the Aggies, the Trojans will return to the Galen Center for a four-game homestand. They’ll play their home opener on Tuesday at 8 p.m. against Cal State Northridge, followed by matchups against Northern Arizona on Nov. 15 at 8 p.m., Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. and West Alabama on Nov. 21 at 7 p.m.