Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With Ben Howland and Kevin O'Neill no longer in the picture, both UCLA and USC will enter the 2013-14 season with a renewed purpose.
UCLA parted ways with Howland despite the team's 25-9 overall finish last season that ended with a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. Howland led the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08, however he was unable to keep up that momentum as they have not made it past the second round since and missed the Big Dance entirely in two of the past four seasons. Howland was the best recruiter the city has seen since Pete Bell and signed many high-profile recruits like Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar during his tenure.
Lately, UCLA's top-level recruiting classes have not driven the team to the results it desired. Shabazz Muhammad was labeled overrated last season after making a late debut, as was the 6-foot-9 point-forward Kyle Anderson. Howland's job security began to fade as reports of his lack of discipline surfaced. Howland was forced to dismiss Reeves Nelson, one of his most valuable assets, while Joshua Smith decided to transfer mid-season.
Anderson's poor jump shot was often criticized during his freshman season. His ability to knock down open jumpers should improve under Steve Alford, one of the best shooters in NCAA history. Alford has not coached a team to the Sweet Sixteen since 1999 when he guided the underdog Southwest Missouri State Bears to upsets of Wisconsin and Tennessee. Although his postseason resume may appear to make him under-qualified to take over the program with a record 11 NCAA Championship banners hanging in the rafters, he has been exceptional during the regular season.
Alford's New Mexico Lobos won four of the last five Mountain West Conference regular season titles and also the last two tournament championship games. In 18 seasons at the Division I level, Alford has compiled a 385-206 record. His no nonsense approach is perfect for UCLA, which demands winning above everything else. He has plenty of talent to work with right away in addition to Anderson. The Bruins return the twin forward combo of David and Travis Wear, sophomore big man Tony Parker and a talented wing in Jordan Adams. Alford also recently signed 2013 McDonald's All-American Isaac Hamilton, who opted out of a commitment to Texas-El Paso to the dismay of Miners' coach Tim Floyd. Hamilton is appealing to play immedietely, which could potentially turn UCLA into a contender to win it all.
Floyd accused USC's newly appointed head coach Andy Enfield of tampering with Hamilton once it became clear the highly coveted recruit was not headed to the Lone Star State for college. The Trojans certainly could have used the extra help, but they still have a very bright future ahead with the engineer of Dunk City occupying the bench. Enfield took over the spotlight during March Madness last season as his 15th seeded Florida Gulf Coast team shocked the nation with upsets of Georgetown and San Diego State before a 12-point loss to Florida ended the exciting run.
After two seasons with the Eagles, Enfield left to test his abilities in one of the most prominent conferences in college basketball. He wasted no time throwing a little fuel on the fire as he made a very publicized statement to his players during a recent practice.
"We play up-tempo basketball here," said Enfield. "If you want to play slow, go to UCLA."
USC's basketball program will be under the limelight due to the current disappointing state of its usually top-notch football team that is struggling to compete at a high level of late. The Trojans are still trying to overcome the drop off that resulted from self-imposed sanctions after investigations revealed illegal recruiting of former guard O.J. Mayo.
Kevin O'Neill was fired after just 17 games last season and longtime assistant Bob Cantu took over on an interim basis. USC lost its final three games of the season and went 7-8 under Cantu, who sparked a fire on arrival. While Alford has a team with a very high ceiling to begin his tenure 12 miles down the road, Enfield will need to orchestrate another coaching miracle to make the Trojans a viable challenger for the Pac-12 Conference crown.
USC has some help on the way for the team's top returning players J.T. Terrell and Byron Wesley, who both owned double-digit scoring averages last season. Seven-footer D.J. Haley will make an immediate impact as a graduate transfer after starting in 48 of his 102 games at VCU. Former Maryland co-captain Pe'Shon Howard will also be eligible to play this season after being granted a relief waiver to return closer to home for family reasons. Haley and Howard will join six incoming freshman to bolster the roster.
The Trojans will have some proven players joining the mix after this season. Darion Clark registered 18 starts at forward as a freshman last season for Charlotte and lights-out shooter Katin Reinhardt was in the starting five in 34-of-35 games last season for UNLV. Both will have to sit out the 2013-14 year to satisfy the NCAA transfer rules, although the wait will be well worth it. They will join the team after Enfield has had a full year to recruit players that will thrive in his system. He was able to build a very dynamic squad at FGCU. With a much bigger budget and more to offer at USC, do not be surprised if Enfield transforms the school into a national power.
The Trojans have not reached the Final Four since 1954 and have never won a national title. Enfield is clearly focused on changing the culture at the Galen Center. There is no guarantee he will be able to succeed at a job that two former NBA coaches recently left on bad terms. He will have plenty of obstacles in his way, including Alford and the Bruins, who will be sure to remember his recent comments when the two teams finally do clash on the court.