USC men’s basketball associate head coach Jason Hart, a Los Angeles native, has been a part of one of the most successful runs in the program’s history. Since Hart came to USC from Pepperdine as a member of head coach Andy Enfield’s staff in 2013, the program has landed an increased number of high-profile recruits and kept USC at or near the top of the conference standings for extended periods of time. Now in their eighth season, Hart, Enfield and the rest of the coaching staff have the Trojans in contention to win their first regular season conference title since the 1984-85 season.
Hart, a father of two, considers himself to be a coach who empathizes with his players. Hart uses his experience as a former NBA point guard and high school head coach to help him on the recruiting trail and while coaching. With USC’s regular season finale against UCLA coming up, the Daily Trojan spoke with Hart to get a better sense of his perspective and outlook on coaching.
DT: You said you’re trying to build longevity in USC’s program. What do you think the program’s been missing where they haven’t been able to achieve consistency? And what do you think’s been changing recently?
JH: Well, I’m from L.A. and I was a top recruit and I didn’t go here. One of the toughest problems that a school like USC faces is it’s known as a football school. For me, my mom didn’t want me to go to a football school. She wanted me to go somewhere where the school and the school’s fans are just as excited about basketball as they are football. So, that was one of the reasons I took my journey to Syracuse. My neighborhood friend, Paul Pierce, he went to Kansas. Then obviously, Baron Davis went to UCLA. Tayshaun Prince went to Kentucky. Every now and then you will get an elite level local player that comes to USC. With Jordan McLaughlin, he kind of started a trend for us in our tenure here. I can’t speak on before we were here, but our tenure. From McLaughlin, they brought Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. Now, people are starting to look at it as a viable place to come play basketball. So that’s just been our uphill battle. We don’t get the same sellout crowds or the notoriety as those elite programs, so our goal is to try to find the best California kids who want to come and be different, and have a different legacy attached to their name.
DT: This year’s team bucked the trend. You guys have gone big while the rest of basketball seems to be going small. How did you ensure this was going to work on the court instead of just making it look good on paper?
JH: Well, we didn’t trust it. Anytime you get a team, you always start from the basics. Just like last year’s team, we did the same with this team in terms of putting in foundation pieces, starting off with defense. And then we build out from there. We play to the talent level that we receive, that commits to our program. Then we try to maximize their strengths to fit what we like to do. This team, it just came together. It was more of a team that had a great bond with each other and trusted each other, and that’s why they’ve had a pretty good season, thus far. It’s not over yet, but, thus far, they’ve been playing pretty well. Last weekend, we didn’t have a good weekend, but overall, they’ve been able to hold their focus.
DT: When you have a team that has been rolling and they have a couple bad losses, or they lose games they believe they should have won, what do you tell the team in the locker room after that? What’s the message you send when you still have a lot to play for?
JH: Well see the fans always say “You should have won.” Everybody has a dream. Should have won — I played professionally. That’s just somebody’s narrative. No, we shouldn’t have won. We didn’t play good, so we lost. Now, somebody probably expected us to win, but if you don’t play well, you’re going to lose regardless of who your opponent is. Colorado has an NBA point guard. He’s really good. And Utah just caught us on a bad day, and they’re a good team. The thing is it’s like life, you got knocked on your ass and now you’ve got to get up and keep going, nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. That’s the message. We didn’t beat them down and say “Those guys are inferior to us.” No, they played a better basketball game. And that’s what it is. Now you have to pick yourself up and get to the next game and be prepared for the next game.
DT: Are there any older NBA traditions or a way the game is played that you try to remind your players about?
JH: I don’t use NBA terminology with our guys. With them living in an age of anxiety and social media, I don’t want to put any more anxiety on those guys. They go to USC, they’re college students. I’m going to tell them about these things using reference to college terms. You did mention that we are a big team, I guess that’s probably our own only similarity to old NBA. But we don’t emphasize anything NBA because they have enough anxieties and pressures already just living in the day and age that they are today.
DT: How do you help players adjust to life in L.A. when they’re coming from out of state, given your perspective as someone who left L.A. and went across the country to play college basketball?
JH: The kids we recruit, we try to find somewhat of a gym rat type player — somebody who’s dedicated and who does have dreams and aspirations to get into the NBA. We also try to find student-athletes who care about their academics as much as basketball. They do well out here. Now sometimes, people come out here and fall in love with the city more than the school and the sport. It’s just a balance, sometimes we’ll take a lesser talented player, just to know that he fits our system. It’s just a balance of who you’re going after and who you recruit.
DT: When you become a head coach at the D-1 level, what would have to happen here at USC for you to say “That was a successful part of my career?”
JH: It’s already been a successful part of my career. We’ve been able to stay here for eight years without getting fired. Anytime you can stay at a school for more than two or three years that means [you’re doing] something right. Now we’re going to be a victim of our own success here shortly because we’re turning a lot of pros, getting this player, that player. Eventually, it’s going to start saying we need to see more and do more. And we’re heading in that direction but before us there wasn’t winning like this. We’ve already been a success. I don’t feel our program should have to do anything more for me to get a job. I’m happy with what we did already. We’ve graduated every senior that came through our program.
DT: What’s the mood within the team right now and what would make this season a success?
JH: The mood on a plane ride home Saturday was very somber and down, as it should be. They played like crap and they felt it. So they took Sunday off, got their mind right and they came to work on Monday and Tuesday with a better attitude and more of a sense of urgency. I think the mood is “It’s not over yet.” We lost two games, and we’ve just got to come back with a focus and I think it starts with tonight.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.