Another March Madness is in the books as the college basketball season wraps up Monday night with a championship matchup of perennial powerhouses: North Carolina and Gonzaga. While it is a bit disappointing that the Pac-12 isn’t represented in the final tilt, West Coast basketball will be represented with the Zags. Hopefully, Gonzaga will be able to handle North Carolina’s assault on the offensive glass and dispel the absurd notion once and for all that West Coast basketball is soft.
While a physical Gonzaga performance would be welcome on Monday, that is just a tangential objective. Either team winning this title would be a win for college basketball purists. Both the Tar Heels and Bulldogs represent the way college basketball teams should be built, with senior-laden leadership and talented upstarts coalescing and improving as the season progresses. All the teams in this year’s Final Four represent a similar model: one phenomenal strength — whether that is offensive rebounding, lockdown defense or 3-point shooting — plus a few decent NBA prospects and a veteran team that has experience playing together and palpable chemistry.
Much like the teams in last year’s spectacular championship game, the best tournament teams this season were those who followed this model, which prizes player development over finishing first in the recruiting rankings. While every few years there may be a Duke or Kentucky team that overwhelms the competition with sheer talent, the best way to stack the deck in one’s favor for annual success is the way this year’s finalists build their programs.
This bodes well for USC, which is following a similar trajectory and currently reaping the rewards of player development, continuity and consistency. The Trojans had their deepest run in the tournament in almost a decade this year. Had a couple plays gone differently, they could have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
The men’s basketball team certainly has some areas it needs to improve on in order to join the upper echelon of teams both in the Pac-12 and nationally, but this year’s success was a further affirmation of head coach Andy Enfield’s vision for his program. The way to win in college basketball is the way the Trojans have proceeded recently. Teams need to recruit top-100 or overlooked local and international talent, but not necessarily top-10 recruits who are surefire lottery picks the next year. They need to have a robust player development program that helps raw talent make leaps in their shooting strokes, physical strength and decision-making skills.
The Trojans have done this the last few years with the likes of Julian Jacobs, Nikola Jovanovic, junior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart and sophomore forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. While Jovanovic, Jacobs and Stewart weren’t vaunted recruits, they still had aspects of their game that had massive potential. All three developed tremendously from their freshman to junior seasons across the board. While the full development wasn’t realized for Jovanovic or Jacobs, the results will be clear next year for Stewart. The difference between him as a freshman and a senior will be immense.
The same can be said for McLaughlin, who was the first top recruit Enfield and company landed. He has improved aspects of his game each year, and his impact on the game is leaps and bounds better than it was a few years ago. While there are still areas he needs to improve, like late-game free-throw shooting and decision making, having him as a point guard is a major advantage compared to a talented young freshman who lacks experience and poise.
Metu’s growth from freshman year to sophomore year was explosive, and while he may be tempted to leave this spring, he could really benefit from another year in the Trojan program. The same could be said of Boatwright, who showed more explosiveness and strength around the rim in his injury-shortened sophomore year.
The two problems with Enfield’s model are his lack of bruising, interior physical recruits and a propensity for many of his players to leave early. Neither Boatwright nor Metu is completely ready for the NBA, and neither were Jacobs and Jovanovic. Whatever the cause may be, the program needs to improve its player retention in order to make the leap even farther.
If the entire Trojan team returned next year, and the freshmen had a year to get better with the new class coming in, USC would be a top-10 program — just as they would have been last year had everyone returned. The key to becoming a UNC-type program is convincing fringe prospects to return and better develop their games. This is by no means an easy task, but neither is winning a national title, and it is absolutely essential to get there.
The second area the Trojans need to improve in is recruiting some physically imposing post players. Jordan Bell of Oregon is the perfect example of a type of player the Trojans need. While he may have entered the national discussion because of his superb tournament performance, he was a household name to Pac-12 fans long before. There is no replacement for big men who can anchor the defensive glass and consistently alter shots.
As it is now, the Trojan basketball program is in phenomenal shape, but it can improve. Hopefully, the team will continue to tweak and improve so that in a few years’ time, Trojan fans can expect to be tuning in to watch their talented, veteran-led team on the first Monday night in April.
Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.