Unique situations have become a part of every day life for college teams across the country over the last three years. Even so, USC’s lead up to this season stands out.
More than half of the team are newcomers, coaches and athletes are largely new to each other, and all playing are sophomores and above. Weaving it all together is new associate head coach Beth Burns, as she fills in for second-year head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who gave birth to a daughter two weeks ago.
Now, just 10 days before their season opener, the Trojans continue to build step by step, day by day.
“We are an interesting group like no other that I’ve ever been associated with,” said Burns, who has coached Division I for 30 years. “I couldn’t be more pleased with, and appreciative to your players for their efforts. Our effort (level) has been sky-high since day one…..we’re a work in progress right now.”
USC returns just two starters after losing eight to graduations and transfers last spring. Seven of the eight newcomers are transfers themselves, hailing from five conferences, where they played under very different systems, run by coaches with divergent philosophies. The Trojans’ lone freshman, Aaliyah Gayles, is redshirting the season after being shot several times at a party in her hometown last April.
Not only are the newcomers and the six returners getting to know each other, the coaching staff has had a big learning curve. Burns said that sophomores Rayah Marshall and Clarice Akunwafo, as well as Oregon transfer Taylor Bigby, were the only athletes she had familiarity with coming into the season.
“Other than those three, I had never seen any of these children play in my life. Like, never,” Burns said.
She and Gottlieb, who was seven months pregnant at the time practices began, instituted weekly scrimmages.
“We need to play games so everybody can figure each other out and go forward,” Burns said. “We have good pieces. The reason we scrimmage a lot is that you can’t go through every game scenario; you just can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Marshall, a guard/forward, came on strong at the end of last season and averaged 11.2 and a team-high 7.7 rebounds per game. Akunwafo started five games and was the only one on the roster to play in all 33 games.
Burns said the Trojans will also lean on graduate transfers Kadi Sissoko, a native of France who came from Minnesota, and Okako Adika, a guard/forward out of TCU.
Sissoko is what Burns calls “pro ready,” as she has played for the France National Team and has a deep cachet of skills, which includes the ability to make shots from anywhere on the court.
“She’s got just a fabulous body for basketball, and she’s got an incredible motor and tempo to her,” Burns said. “She’s such a versatile piece, because she can guard multiple positions. We can really do a lot of different things with her in the mix….Rayah as her running mate is very, very good.”
Adika is what Burns characterizes as “another long, lanky player who just busts her tail every day.”
“Koko can really shoot the three, and she’s a dynamic, offensive player,” she said.
In fact, offensive firepower will be a strength for the budding, veteran squad.
“This team can shoot the ball as well or better than just about any team I’ve been around. Like, we can shoot,” Burns said. “Our ball handling needs to improve; lot of things need to improve. But if you’re having a shooting contest, we can shoot it. That’s a pretty good strength to have, and that’s probably our best attribute so far.”
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge for the Trojans right now is in developing their defense.
“We’re just trying to teach everybody how to come together, when they’ve come from so many different defensive systems,” Burns said. “I can understand their confusion. If they were freshmen, it would almost be easier, because they wouldn’t know anything.”
It is all part of the overall mission, which is to reboot and build a new program.
“Were changing a culture,” Burns said. “Winning is details, so we attack a different detail every day, and we learn about each other every day.”
Toward that end, the addition of guard Destiny Littleton has been invaluable, as she came to USC after winning a national title with South Carolina in April.
“Destiny Littleton is a big piece for us because she just won a National Championship,” Burns said. “And if you want to build a culture, it starts with the details, and she knows it. She knows it better than I know it, and she can start with our squad with winning habits. She’s been another big piece of what we’re doing.”
Burns said Littleton has dropped 25 pounds to prepare for the season, and has made a “huge commitment” to her new school.
“She plays combo guard, and she’s just our best leader and winner,” Burns said. “She’s been really talented in terms of how she contributes, but she also contributes in that she’s teaching us how to win.”
Marshall said she looks forward to playing with Littleton and another transfer guard, Kayla Williams from UC Irvine, as well as returner Bella Perkins.
“All players who are experienced are carrying the team right now, and they’re really good players,” Marshall said. “They’re skilled enough to pass the ball inside and….passing the ball to each other to connect in the paint is very important.”
Sissoko said she is trying to do her part to help guide the team.
“I’m here to compete, and turn this program around with great teammates, and bring as much leadership as I can,” she said.
What’s being built on the court already exists with the coaching staff, which is deeply tied together.
Gottlieb, who has known Burns for decades, called her at Louisville, where she had been an assistant coach for five years since leaving the same position at USC. Burns helped guide the Cardinals to the Final Four last year, and hadn’t thought about leaving. But after a long talk with Gottlieb, she decided to return to the school that she calls “one of the finest institutions in the country.”
“I think for (Gottlieb), she wanted to get out of the box, and to be open to doing things maybe a different way,” Burns said. “And obviously the the fact that she was pregnant, I think, enhanced an opportunity for someone like myself.”
The two are what Burns calls complimentary opposites, with Gottlieb being the more creative X’s and O’s coach. Burns was head coach at San Diego State before Gottlieb became head coach at Cal. Burns moved to USC, then Louisville, while Gottlieb coached with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers before returning to the college basketball ranks.
For Burns, returning to the Trojans also meant reuniting with athletic director Mike Bohn, who held the same position with the Aztecs when he hired her many years ago. USC’s current player development coach, Courtney Jaco, played for the team when Burns was an assistant, under head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
Coming into Troy last year, Gottlieb hired her longtime assistant for the Bears, Wendale Farrow. Burns said she has leaned on all of the assistants, including Nneka Enemkpali, heavily.
“Dale has been with Lindsay for a long time, and can kind of finish her sentences, so he’s been a huge resource for me,” she said. “Courtney Jaco is one of my favorite players of all time. She’s a great human, and she’s smart and talented.”
Burns said the team’s September was unorthodox, with staff scrambling to put systems in place before their head coach went out on maternity leave. And then, Gottlieb didn’t go willingly.
“Lindsay is really excited to be around the game all the time, but (eventually) I told her, ‘you know you have a staff that’s very skilled at a lot of things, but boiling water and delivering babies is not at the top of our list,’” Burns said. “She eventually said ‘uncle” about a week before (giving birth).”
The Trojans had a closed scrimmage with UNLV last weekend, and are preparing for their lone exhibition matchup at home tomorrow. Gottlieb is keeping tabs on the team remotely.
“We hope that we’ll see her back when we start the season, but I think we’re all in kind of a one day at a time mode,” Burns said. “We’ve got to get an identity for USC before we worry about anyone else.”
Though it is challenging, Burns said the process of coming together has been fun for all.
“Just about every young person here is in that position where they get to have a fresh start,” she said. “That’s pretty cool, and is probably a unique situation for every single person on board. Then you have to develop chemistry, like as quickly as possible.”
The Trojans have been picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 this year – one notch above their ending spot last season. But Sissoko said she and her teammates will try to exceed expectations.
“Honestly, I think we’re underdogs, and people don’t expect us to do such great things this year,” she said. “The pressure is on us, but like, not really at the same time. (For) some of us, it’s like our second or third chances, so we’re just hungry and we want to prove a lot of things. But we also have experience, and we want to show it.”
In striving to make daily and weekly improvements, USC is embracing the grind.
“Our whole team – I love their work ethic,” Marshall said.
The Trojans open the season Nov. 8, as they host Cal State Bakersfield.