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USC coach Andy Enfield, center, talks to his team during a timeout in the second half of their Pac-12 game against Arizona on Thursday night at the Galen Center. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
USC coach Andy Enfield, center, talks to his team during a timeout in the second half of their Pac-12 game against Arizona on Thursday night at the Galen Center. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

COLUMBUS — Entering the 2015-16 season, Andy Enfield understood the situation. His first two seasons at USC had resulted in little success, with the Trojans going a combined 5-31 in Pac-12 play. The third season felt like a make-or-break year.

“We had to win some games to give everybody an assurance of what we were trying to build or develop was happening,” Enfield said. “So we all felt that was a very important year in the program.”

The season would end with the Trojans’ first trip to the NCAA tournament under the head coach. On Friday, USC will face Michigan State in the first round of Enfield’s fifth NCAA tournament at USC, a program record.

But when Enfield’s tenure began – 10 years ago next month – he inherited a significantly different caliber program.

Enfield arrived at USC following the 2013 season, following his electrifying Sweet 16 run at Florida Gulf Coast. The Trojans, on the other hand, had gone 14-18 in the final year of Kevin O’Neill’s tenure and were a season removed from a last-place finish in the Pac-12.

“When we got here, it was a mess,” said associate head coach Chris Capko, one of Enfield’s first USC hires at first as director of basketball operations. “You could just tell our group, there was a disorganization in terms of what they were used to. And then on top of that, our talent just wasn’t good.”

USC had to start over through recruiting but was also combatting the perception of the previous coaching staff. Local high schools and AAU programs felt like USC had overlooked local recruits. Bridges had been burned.

“We made a short-term plan to recruit Southern California players, to get them excited about the future of USC basketball,” Enfield said. “It was our job as a staff to sell a future of what we were trying to build there and have them be the reason why we would become successful.”

Enfield and his coaches weren’t getting in the home of any blue-chip recruit at that time. So the staff looked for under-the-radar players who also possessed the intangibles needed to change the locker room culture: leadership, competitiveness and a willingness to be coached.

The first recruiting class hit on that with Etiwanda’s Jordan McLaughlin and Westchester’s Elijah Stewart. The 2015 class built on the foundation with Lawndale’s Chimezie Metu and Village Christian’s Bennie Boatwright.

It took a while for on-court success to catch up to recruiting victories. Enfield admits he had doubts during those first two seasons that they would be able to achieve his vision at USC.

“It was very challenging mentally to try to keep everybody’s confidence,” he said. “When you have to play well to lose by eight points, you don’t play well you’re going to lose by 15 or 20. It’s very hard on everybody.”

But in 2015-16, things began to click. A sophomore, McLaughlin led the team in scoring while combining with Julian Jacobs for 10.2 assists per game. Nikola Jovanovic developed into a low-post threat while young wings Boatwright and Stewart added valuable minutes.

The Trojans made the NCAA tournament that year. Though they lost, they had shifted the culture. And they were able to pass that down to the next generation like Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic, who in turn handed it down to Isaiah Mobley, who then passed the baton to Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis, this year’s USC captains.

“If Julian left after his first year because you didn’t build a relationship with him or he wasn’t about the right stuff or he didn’t bring that work ethic, you never build that continuity because you constantly replace,” Capko said. “It wasn’t just a short-term effort. those guys saw it through. That’s how you build culture in a program. It goes from one class to the next class to the next.”

With success, recruiting changed. Once pitching his success at Florida Gulf Coast, Enfield was able to point to All-Pac-12 selections and NBA draft picks at USC. Then came the five-star recruits, Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah and Evan Mobley.

The Trojans’ success sending these players to the NBA allowed Enfield to expand his recruiting base from Southern California to a national footprint. This year, it was No. 1 overall recruit Isaiah Collier from Georgia. Last year, it was McDonald’s All-American big man Vincent Iwuchukwu in San Antonio.

“I just trusted Andy,” Iwuchukwu said. “They develop bigs. Onyeka, Metu, Mobley. You have guys that have continuously come to this program and gotten better.”

Improvement has been the trademark of this year’s team. After a season-opening loss – to FGCU, of all teams – it was unclear if all the sophomores and freshmen would be ready to contribute as much as expected.

Instead, USC is in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, a streak that would have been longer if the 2020 dance wasn’t canceled at the start of the pandemic.

“Our (past) players have set a standard and this year we were so proud of them to live up to a standard of the last few years,” Enfield said. “That’s why when I say this is probably the most improved team we’ve had, it’s because not too many people in November thought they could live up to that standard. They came together and improved, and that’s what makes us as a staff so proud of this group.”