LOS ANGELES — It’s been only a few months, but the Battle for Los Angeles is on.
Technically, its seeds were planted months ago, back when both UCLA and Southern California found themselves seeking flashy, big-name hires to fill their head coaching vacancies. USC tapped Andy Enfield, the maestro of the high-flying, dunk-happy Florida Gulf Coast team that became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. UCLA hired Steve Alford, who had brought New Mexico back to national relevance in recent years.
Alford seeks discipline
Both coaches promised exciting, up-tempo basketball. Both coaches said they’d make it a priority to recruit Los Angeles, a talent-rich region.
Then, Jordan McLaughlin, one of the area’s top-rated point guards, committed to USC in September, choosing it over a group of elite schools that included UCLA.
“It really caught my attention what they’re trying to do with the new coaching staff,” McLaughlin said in announcing his decision, according to the Los Angeles Times. “USC was the perfect fit.
Earlier this month, Enfield fanned the flames of the increasingly heated rivalry when he told his players during practice: “We play up-tempo basketball here. If you want to play slow, go to UCLA.”
Circle the dates these teams will play this season — at UCLA on Jan. 5 and at USC on Feb. 18. They’ll surely be among the most anticipated in the long-standing rivalry.
Alford’s new office in Westwood sits a floor above the athletic department’s shrine to legendary coach John Wooden, who won 10 national championships at UCLA.
It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of the history, prestige and expectations that come with this gig. Alford calls it “a dream come true.”
To make that dream come true, Alford first had to leave New Mexico. He took the UCLA job March 30, just 10 days after he’d signed a 10-year extension with the Lobos, which resulted in a predictable backlash.
Then Los Angeles did not exactly welcome Alford with open arms. Local news media questioned the hire. And at Alford’s introductory news conference, reporters brought up his fervent defense of a player accused of sexual assault in 2002, when Alford was the head coach at Iowa. (He was defiant at the news conference, defending his actions at the time, but since has offered a public apology.)
Alford says he isn’t fazed by the criticism.
“If you focus on the negative, if you read the newspapers and read the blogs and message boards, there’s always a (chance) somebody’s going to say something that you disagree with,” UCLA assistant Duane Broussard says. “Coach Alford has done a phenomenal job of just coming into work every day and just doing his job.”
Alford’s job these days is multifaceted, from recruiting to organizing practices to meeting with academic advisers. In addition, he says he hopes to run a disciplined program, meaning having a cleaner team on the court (fewer turnovers and mistakes) but also teaching his players about consequences — “Coach Knight told me a long time ago, that’s a very powerful world,” Alford says of his playing days at Indiana for Bob Knight.
In light of ex-coach Ben Howland’s firing and a scathing Sports Illustrated piece two years ago about a lack of discipline in Westwood, Alford’s approach is important, particularly when setting the tone for a roster of top-tier (and much-hyped) talent.
At each of the pit stops of his 23-year coaching career, Alford has challenged himself to take the program to its next level. He took Division III Manchester College to its first national championship game. He took Missouri State to its first Sweet 16. His Iowa teams won two Big Ten tournament titles. At New Mexico, Alford’s Lobos won four Mountain West regular-season championships.
“Now, the challenge is you come to UCLA,” Alford says. “What can you do that hasn’t been done before? You’ve got the legacy of Coach Wooden … and you’re at a school that has the most national titles in your sport, 11. I don’t know if this challenge is about doing something different or if it is understanding that legacy and working as hard as you can to meet those standards of excellence. That’s what we’re working every day to do.”
Enfield ups tempo
Across town, Enfield’s main challenge is drastically different. He’s not the new face of a program steeped in tradition. He’s taking over a basketball program plagued by inconsistency and mediocrity. The Trojans haven’t reached an Elite Eight since 2001, and their last Final Four appearance was in 1954.
USC athletics director Pat Haden went outside the box when he decided to hire Enfield, who had two years of head coaching experience at the collegiate level.
His was the hot name this offseason, after he led a No. 15 seed into the Sweet 16 for the first time in NCAA tournament history, but could he coach in a power conference? Would his Harlem Globetrotter-esque style of play work against Pac-12 teams — or was it simply a novelty act that caught Georgetown and San Diego State by surprise in March?
“This is just basketball,” Enfield says. “People say, ‘Wow, you play a different style.’ It’s not different to me. To me, this is the fun way to play. Push the ball down the court, try to score quickly. If not, run some quick action.”
USC assistant coach Tony Bland is amazed by how fast Enfield wants his guys to play, even in practice. The hirings of San Diego State’s Bland and Pepperdine assistant Jason Hart are significant, providing the staff with California roots to help with recruiting.
“He wants them to try to score within the first eight seconds of the shot clock,” Bland says. “It reminds me of the Clippers right now or when the Phoenix Suns had Steve Nash and they were run-and-gun.”
It makes sense that Enfield’s style feels like what teams do with the NBA’s 24-second shot clock game; he began his coaching career as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Boston Celtics in the mid- to late 1990s.
USC players will have to adjust to a new pace in practice and games, but the coaching staff is confident the transition will go well.
Introducing players to his system is just part of Enfield’s job, which has been keeping him extremely busy since he was hired April1, two days after Florida Gulf Coast was eliminated from the NCAA tournament.
There was no time for Enfield to sit back and reflect on the whirlwind run; he had to get to work replacing interim head coach Bob Cantu, who filled in for Kevin O’Neill after his firing in January. He had to meet players, start recruiting and begin selling USC basketball. He even made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Now that the season is here, it’s all business. Though Enfield’s business is fun.
“The way he wants to play — up-tempo, wide open, fast — it’s exciting,” Bland says. “His style is different, but it’s fresh, and I think it’s perfect for L.A.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball