USC or UCLA — Which LA program has the upper hand now?
Let’s get right to the point: The narrative since USC hired Andy Enfield and UCLA hired Steve Alford back in the spring is that USC made a bold, imaginative hire and that UCLA struck out. And just about everything that has happened since those hires were announced has reinforced that storyline. Alford struggled through his opening weeks, getting repeatedly hammered for his handling of a sexual assault case involving one of his players at Iowa 11 years early, before finally apologizing more than a week after his first press conference at UCLA. Meanwhile, Andy Enfield was appearing on The Tonight Show, chumming around with Jay Leno and Charlie Sheen and discussing, among other things, his supermodel wife. While Enfield was putting together a superstar group of assistant coaches, Alford put together a less buzzworthy staff. And when the two coaching staffs went head to head in the recruitment of local point guard Jordan McLaughlin, it was USC that came out on top, reinforcing the story that it was USC that was the hip and happening program while UCLA was trailing far behind. Even a seemingly innocuous mid-practice comment from Enfield earlier this month made the news cycle and reinforced the idea that UCLA was old and boring: “If you want to play slow, go to UCLA.”
So clearly, USC has all the momentum, UCLA is about to take a dive, and the next thing you know, the Galen Center will be the basketball mecca in Southern California, right? Well, not so fast. Because while this has been, without a doubt, a strong offseason for USC and a poor one for UCLA, here are the two teams’ records since those hires were made: USC: 0-0, UCLA: 0-0. And when games tip off next week, UCLA is expected to be one of the best teams in the Pac-12 and a national Top 25 team, while USC is picked to finish right around the bottom of the conference standings. Enfield and the Trojans will need to prove that they can sustain forward momentum while likely disappearing from the national conversation and playing in front of sparse crowds. Meanwhile, the Bruins will find themselves in high-profile games like their battle with Duke at Madison Square Garden or their lone 2014 regular season game against Arizona in Pauley Pavilion. Or any number of other Pac-12 games that are expected to have an impact on the conference race.
Will Enfield still be the toast of the town if his team finishes 13-16 on the year (as projected by Ken Pomeroy)? And if Alford can turn Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Zach LaVine into another 20-win team (as expected) with an invitation to the Big Dance, doesn’t that mean UCLA, come April, will be the team with all the momentum in the city? While Alford clearly struck out with his first handful of recruits, if guys like Ben Howland and Steve Lavin and Jim Harrick can recruit to Westwood, you can bet Alford will too. Enfield is riding the momentum right now, sure, but he and his program are certainly spotting UCLA quite a lead. That margin can be made up in time, but Enfield will have to do it after giving up most of the momentum he’s built once the games start. Throw in all the natural recruiting advantages that UCLA basketball has over its crosstown rival (facilities, history, location, not to mention the great offseason run on the UCLA campus) and while things have certainly started slowly for Alford, his advantages are far too great to change the pecking order. Enfield can ultimately find success at USC, but things would have to drastically change for Troy to become the predominant college basketball program in Los Angeles.