George Raveling had only been Iowa’s head coach for three years when the job at USC opened up in 1986. He had previously spent 11 years at Washington State, which was in the same league, so he knew all about the challenges of training for UCLA cross country. rival city. That long shadow, combined with the general apathy around USC basketball, deterred many coaches from pursuing the vacancy, but Raveling saw it all as a plus. “For me, it made the job more appealing because I didn’t have to deal with unrealistic expectations,” he said.
On the other hand, it was extremely difficult for USC basketball to capture public attention even when the Trojans were winning. This was true not only when it came to their hometown, but also their own campus, where USC football reigned supreme. All these years later, nothing has changed. “USC could win four straight national championships in basketball, and it will always be a school of football,” Raveling said. “Just like no matter how many games Chip Kelly wins, UCLA football will never be bigger than UCLA basketball.”
It has become even more difficult for USC basketball to gain public attention since Raveling retired in 1994. Yes, in 2006 the school opened the 10,000-seat Galen Center, an arena cleverly designed with a floor-to-ceiling window that includes training gymnasiums, locker rooms, coaches offices and all the features a modern facility should have. But after being without NFL teams for more than two decades, Los Angeles now has two, the Rams and the Chargers. The place they play, SoFi Stadium, is a brand new, sprawling facility that looks like a spaceship and has also hosted a college football championship game and a Super Bowl (which the Rams won), as well as big musical acts. . Greater LA also features two NBA teams, two MLB teams, two NHL teams, a pair of wildly popular MLS teams, and a burgeoning NWSL team. The US Open in men’s golf, the World Cup and the Summer Olympics are on the way. Not to mention all of the entertainment and recreation options available in Los Angelenos, from Hollywood nightlife to beaches, mountains and deserts that are all less than two hours away.
So yeah, it’s hard for USC basketball to get noticed in this city. But it will be a lot easier next season, because on Saturday Bronny James, a 6-foot-3 combo guard at Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, announced his plans to play for the Trojans. James is ranked No. 21 in his class by the 247Sports Composite, but the attention he’s garnering won’t come so much from his skills as from his lineage – LeBron’s son – and prodigious social media. It remains to be seen just how much James can help the Trojans win, but there’s no doubt that, for better or worse, he’ll be a lot more eye-catching at the Galen Center come November.
Granted, he’s not the first quality player Andy Enfield has brought in in his 10 years on the job. James isn’t even the highest-ranked player in USC’s current recruiting class. That would be Isaiah Collier, a 6-3 point guard from Georgia who is No. 1 in the 247Sports Composite. Enfield’s other rookie, Arrinten Page, is a four-star forward from Georgia. In 2020, Enfield landed Evan Mobley, the No. 3 player in the country. James is therefore not close to the best player Enfield has ever signed. He’s just the most famous.
The thing is, you don’t win as many games as Enfield without attracting talent. Enfield has taken the Trojans to five NCAA tournaments, more than any coach in school history, and in 2021 he led USC to its third Elite Eight. (One of those came in 1954, when the field consisted of 24 teams and the Trojans reached the semi-finals.) The Trojans have only finished below third place in the Pac- 12 in the past six years, and they’ve won more games in the past seven years than in any seven-year period in the program’s history.
Granted, Enfield has only made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament twice, but its teams have always been competitive. It’s not a program that desperately needs an extreme makeover. Taking James therefore carries a certain risk. Those bright lights he brings? They come with a lot of heat. If the team is not ready to perform, it will be a bad look for everyone, especially Enfield.
Here’s another potential conundrum: What if USC has a winning season but James doesn’t? Will it become a distraction? James’ famous father was deeply involved in his son’s basketball development. (That’s why Bronny is as good as he is, after all.) If the Trojans win but James doesn’t get many minutes, how is he going to handle that? How is LeBron? How the media and the public? If there’s a backlash, or if this thing goes off the rails, will it hamper Enfield’s recruiting efforts going forward?
By nearly all accounts, Bronny is a well-liked, caring, and unearthly mature young man. His teammates, coaches and others who have spent time with him praise him for looking so normal. He does not travel with an entourage and does not put on grand airs. But for a guy who achieved so much success, his high school team certainly had a mediocre season. Sierra Canyon went 23-10 and finished in third place in its league with a 5-2 record. His season ended with an 80-61 loss to Notre Dame Prep in a Southern California Division 1 playoff game. James had 10 points in the loss. He scored 15 points in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but the chatter in recruiting circles was that Bronny’s invitation to that showcase was as much a product of his name as his game — and probably much more. Fair or not, true or not, is the narrative that has followed Bronny for a long time, and he will continue to follow it at USC.
Despite all these potential downsides, it was an easy decision for Enfield to sign James. Bronny is local, he has talent and Enfield needs players. Last year’s top scorer Boogie Ellis, a 6-3 point guard who was traded from Memphis two years ago, is returning for a super senior season, but three others are traded. They include 6-5 sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters, who was the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year and is heading to San Diego State, and 6-7 rookie Tre White, who started 29 games and hasn’t decided where he will play next. Beyond Ellis, the top three returning scorers are all front row players, so James should have ample opportunity to earn minutes and perhaps start on day one.
Ultimately, the hype can only carry a player so far. Once James steps onto the pitch next season, he will have nowhere to hide. Either it will be good enough or it won’t be, and it will be obvious to everyone. Either way, his team won’t have the luxury of short waits or working in the dark. Is USC basketball finally ready for its close-up? We won’t know until the games start. The one thing we know for sure is that a lot of people will tune in to find out.
(Top photo: Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)