The atmosphere at the Galen Center had all the reason to be rocking. The Trojans were playing crosstown rival UCLA, tipoff was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, in-house DJ Mal-Ski was spinning some half-decent tunes and even USC hardwood great Nick “Swaggy P” Young was courtside with his son.
Yet as the Trojans built a surprising 41-35 halftime lead, splotches of the lower bowl at the Galen Center were empty, and row after row in certain parts of the upper area remained desolate. The Trojans collapsed within the first six minutes of the second half, and by then, the well-represented Bruin contingent was significantly audible even in USC’s most packed student section of the year. After UCLA went on a 24-5 run to open the second half, with the exception of a late Trojan flurry that cut things to 78-71, the crowd remained dormant for the duration except to boo referees’ calls. The students I talked to walking out weren’t even disappointed; they just shrugged their shoulders, enjoyed their free “Crosstown Showdown” t-shirts and happily ventured off to their Saturday night plans.
Early returns from the Andy Enfield era have been a mixed bag. He should be given somewhat of a pass due to USC’s mishmash of a roster — not ideal for running his fast-paced, three-point-based system — but there have been times when watching the Trojans has been an exercise in agony. There was the second half of Saturday night, the second half against Arizona, the entire game against Arizona State and a multitude of non-conference home bouts against inferior squads that the Trojans let hang around for far too long. After a low degree of difficulty to the non-conference slate, the Trojans have allowed more than 81 points per game in Pac-12 play. They defeated Cal at Galen for their only conference victory so far, but have lost their other four Pac-12 home games by an average of 14.3 points. In short: The home entertainment has had little value.
Enfield has been brief on the home attendance issue. His stance is that while he wishes more fans would turn up to root on his squad, he appreciates the home court advantage the Trojans do have at Galen. My take isn’t as courteous.
I usually find it fair to judge a team’s following based on its attendance for the games at the bottom of the interest-level totem pole. But if USC can’t fill out for UCLA, that’s all I need to know. The Trojans’ two most attended home games this season — and the only two filling more than 60 percent of the seats at Galen — have been Saturday night and Jan. 12 against Arizona. Neither were sellouts. Both were filled with opposing fans; UCLA because the Bruins are located a couple miles down the I-10 and up the 405, and Arizona because of the massive Wildcat alumni base in Los Angeles and the timing of the game during winter break. The Trojans have become that type of team, where the loudest contingent of fans is the one cheering for the Pac-12 visitor.
I’ll make the never perfect but ever-so-fun football comparison between the Trojans and the Bruins right now.
Even on the brightest days of the last 10 years of USC basketball, the farthest the Trojans advanced was the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, as the support for UCLA head coach Ben Howland waned last spring, he won 25 games. How many times has USC won more than 25 games in program history? Zero.
Now to football. As the Bruins celebrated their 10-win season in 2013, the Trojans endured a transition season to win the same number of games.
Just as the Trojans saw middling football attendance with a coach doomed to be fired, so did the UCLA basketball fans, despite it being the first year at a renovated Pauley Pavilion.
So as Steve Alford has UCLA at 18-5 and likely headed back to the NCAA Tournament, Enfield has USC at 10-13 and still looking to double its Pac-12 win total. Howland left the cupboard stuffed with statsheet-filler Kyle Anderson, scoring guard Jordan Adams and the wiry Norman Powell. Enfield got a group of players where for every strength, there’s an equally egregious weakness. While stars continue to fill the Galen Center — just look at Young, DeMar DeRozan and O.J. Mayo — so far, USC has been seeing stars as the losses continue.
The future is bright, but sadly for this year’s squad, fans aren’t exactly dwelling on the present.
Jacob Freedman is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Four-Point Shot” runs every other Monday. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jacob at firstname.lastname@example.org