USC coach Andy Enfield talks to guard Tahj Eaddy during a game last season.. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
The festivities couldn’t start without the ringbearers.
Speaking first before a gathering of Southern California college basketball coaches was USC’s Andy Enfield, whose team soon will receive rings to commemorate the second Elite Eight appearance in the modern era in school history.
Going last was UCLA assistant coach Rod Palmer, whose team has tried on its rings after an unexpected run to the Final Four.
Neither team considers its jewelry collection complete.
UCLA is a national-title contender after bringing back not just every starter but every player who appeared in its epic national semifinal loss to Gonzaga.
USC possesses what Enfield called the deepest team in his nine seasons at the school.
“We have 13 scholarship players,” Enfield told the crowd Tuesday at the Southern California Basketball Coaches Tip-off Luncheon inside the Los Angeles Athletic Club, “and they all can play.”
A bigger question: Can they make up for the loss of Evan Mobley, the third pick in the NBA draft? Enfield said Isaiah Mobley, Evan’s older brother, had developed into what he considered the best defensive big man in the Pac-12 Conference.
Seniors Chevez Goodwin and Isaiah White are back in addition to juniors Max Agbonkpolo and Ethan Anderson. Transfers Josh Morgan and Boogie Ellis should be immediate contributors.
“Boogie is an elite, dynamic scorer,” Enfield said of the 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 10.2 points per game last season at Memphis, “and he’ll be fun to watch.”
Enfield has dominated the rivalry with UCLA counterpart Mick Cronin, who was unable to attend the luncheon because of a schedule conflict, going 4-0 in head-to-head games, including two victories on last-second shots.
A city title isn’t the goal, of course.
“We obviously enjoy those rivalry games,” Enfield told The Times before the start of the event, “but we have our eye on the bigger picture, and that is to compete for the Pac-12 championship as well as make the NCAA tournament and compete for a national championship.”
The same expectations apply across town. Palmer said his boss, known as a defensive mastermind, was pushing his players to fix perhaps the one area in which they have been deficient.
“Listening to one of our practices,” Palmer said, “you’ll hear Coach Cronin say we were the 70th-ranked defensive team in the country last year, so you can imagine how much emphasis he’s putting on our team playing defense.”
The luncheon included the requisite COVID-19 jokes — “I wouldn’t recognize her without her mask on,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said of his wife — as well as a tearful tribute to Nan Wooden, the daughter of UCLA coach John Wooden who died last month, from Craig Impelman, John Wooden’s grandson-in-law.
Predictably, there was more upbeat talk at a time when every team is unbeaten. Loyola Marymount coach Stan Johnson said a team that returned all five starters and landed three high-level transfers could be on the verge of the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1990.
That was when the Lions were in the national spotlight upon the death of Hank Gathers and a resulting Elite Eight run that featured Bo Kimble shooting free throws left-handed in appreciation of his late teammate.
Another emerging story line involved UC Riverside coach Mike Magpayo, a former commercial banker and John Wooden aficionado whose opening line underscored his history-making heritage.
“My name is Mike Magpayo,” he said. “I’m not sure y’all know this, I’m the first Asian head coach in Division I basketball history.”
Mike Magpayo, racial pioneer.
Has a nice ring to it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.