The city of Los Angeles lives in a clear-cut world when viewed through the relationship between professional and college sports. Pro sports are thriving in the City of Angels, and the revenue-producing college sports are floundering.
What was true for football — with the Rams and Chargers possibly headed for a Super Bowl showdown, while USC and UCLA both failed to make the RedBox Bowl, the Sun Bowl, or the Poulan WeedEater TaxSlayer Beef O’Brady’s Meineke CarCare Continental Tire Bowl — is also true for college basketball.
Saturday continued the parade of misery in the collegiate revenue sports at USC and UCLA. The Trojans made a brief run in the early portion of the second half to pull within five points of Oklahoma, but they had no answers down the stretch, much as they had no answers in the first half. This is a decent Oklahoma team, but it lacks the imposing talent of the Buddy Hield group from three seasons ago. A good USC team probably would have managed to win that game.
This is not a good USC team. In a bad Pac-12, the Trojans are already in an “autobid or bust” position for the NCAA Tournament. It is clear that Jordan McLaughlin meant a lot to this bunch — USC at its best under Andy Enfield has been a very productive episode of “The McLaughlin Group.”
Without McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and other veterans lack that rock at point guard who kept the team together. Coach Andy Enfield has manifestly failed to create cohesion this season, though in his defense, Kevin Porter, Jr. — the high-end newcomer to this season’s roster — has been injured for multiple games and has not been able to play anywhere close to 100 percent.
The bottom line with USC basketball — which came very, very close to making three straight NCAA Tournaments last season (something which has rarely happened for the Trojans over the years) — is that if the program is going to rise or fall, next season’s elite recruiting class will reveal whether Enfield is just a savvy recruiter with a sweet sales pitch or the chalkboard master who made Florida Gulf Coast the first No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16 in 2013.
Next season will tell us if Enfield is for real, or if he is a West Coast version of Johnny Jones, the (now ex-) LSU head coach who recruited Ben Simmons and couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament with the Australian star. Enfield isn’t winning fans in L.A., but this season won’t show much about him.
This season — especially this next week of games — is a lot more urgent for the man Enfield coaches and recruits against in Los Angeles for prime talent and Pac-12 superiority: Steve Alford.
Alford has been at UCLA for five full seasons. Now in his sixth, it is plain that even if UCLA makes the NCAA Tournament, it won’t be as a protected seed (No. 4 or higher). The Bruins’ ceiling seems to be the round of 32… and to be honest, that is being generous. Belmont is a good team, and Rick Byrd is the Bee’s Knees, but if you are worthy of the UCLA job, you shouldn’t lose to Belmont this past Saturday. You also should be cranking out high-end seeds on a relatively consistent basis. Alford, in five seasons, has produced a 4 seed once and a 3 seed once. He has created two No. 11 seeds, one of them not getting out of Dayton and the First Four. He missed the NCAA Tournament once.
That is not a UCLA standard, and it isn’t particularly a close call, either — unless you make the Final Four in your best season. Alford hasn’t even made one Elite Eight in Westwood. The three Sweet 16s are decent, but not when situated against the larger backdrop of both inconsistency and mediocrity on his watch.
Enfield’s moment of truth at USC is next season, when America will see what he does with an embarrassment of riches. The man on the hot seat in L.A. college hoops is Alford, who has a pre-Christmas week of urgent work to do against two Ohio teams: Cincinnati, smarting from a loss to Mississippi State this past Saturday, and then Ohio State next Saturday in Chicago on CBS.
The towering irony — related to Alford — about Cincinnati’s loss to Mississippi State: It was authored by the man who got run out of UCLA despite making three Final Fours. Ben Howland has patiently rebuilt MSU. The Bulldogs are looking very good in their quest to return to the Big Dance. In Starkville, merely making the NCAA Tournament is a huge deal. At UCLA, it doesn’t mean a whole lot if deep March runs aren’t included in the package. Alford has to coach his way past Mick Cronin AND Chris Holtmann. Winning one of two would avert a total disaster and give UCLA at least something to build on heading into Pac-12 play, but an 0-for-2 week against the Ohio Axis would place UCLA squarely in autobid territory heading into the Pac-12 season, given how few chances every non-Arizona State team in the league will have to boost its resume in head-to-head competition.
Andy Enfield will experience massive pressure in Los Angeles… but not until next season.
Right now, the sorry state of college hoops in L.A. revolves around Steve Alford, whose next week of work is critical in determining how high his UCLA team can climb this season.
The Bruins will need to bring their best hiking boots.
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