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Andy Enfield's 'Dunk City' model is finally starting to take root at USC

It's been almost three years since Andy Enfield came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest names in college basketball. Now with USC off to its best start in years, he's poised to regain that status.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Andy Enfield heard the criticism 12 months ago. He saw himself on the various coaching hot seat lists. He read the stories both locally and nationally that openly questioned whether USC had made a mistake bringing in someone whose full body of work as a head coach was limited to just two seasons at Florida Gulf Coast.

When asked directly about these things, Enfield's response was always the same.

"Judge it next year."

Next year is here, and the midseason returns are awfully promising. USC will carry a 14-3 overall record and a 3-1 league mark into Wednesday night's game against archrival UCLA. Their lone conference loss came by two points at Pac-12 leading Washington. Their only non-league stumbles came against nationally ranked Xavier and mid-major darling Monmouth (a team they also defeated earlier in the season).

The defining victory of the Enfield era to date likely came last weekend when USC outlasted then 7th-ranked Arizona in quadruple overtime, 103-101. After two seasons of sitting in front of the media and fielding questions about why his program didn't appear to be improving, Enfield fully embraced the moment that the victory over the Wildcats provided him. He arrived late, sat down, smiled, stared out at the reporters in front of him and then opened things up with a rhetorical question.

"Well, how about that?"

If Enfield was thinking about a working title for his autobiography, that line would work as well as any.

There was a time, from which we aren't all that far removed, when Enfield was college basketball's most lovable new face and not just another major program coach attempting to prove that he deserves his gig.

On March 1, 2013, there wasn't even a Wikipedia page for Andy Enfield. He was simply the coach of a Florida Gulf Coast program that had gone 15-17 in his first season, and was preparing to end his second season on the job as the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Sun conference tournament. Three weeks and five victories later, Enfield was the head coach of the most popular basketball team in America. He was the mayor of "Dunk City," the man in the middle of March's most jubilant locker room celebrations and the guy pulling the strings of the first No. 15 seed ever to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Suddenly, we knew everything about Enfield -- his successful career as an Internet entrepreneur, his supermodel wife, how he landed the job at FGCU and how he was about to be mentioned as a possibility for every major coaching vacancy in Division-I.

For a while, it seemed like this might be as good as it would ever get for Enfield. In a story college basketball fans are all too familiar with, the brilliant, young, fascinating and exciting head coach of a March Cinderella quickly morphed into the clueless, overrated, tone-deaf head coach ill-equipped to handle the demands of being in charge of a major conference program.

Part of the problem was Enfield's own doing.

Bravado isn't a job requirement to work in Los Angeles, but it never hurts, especially when the guy you're replacing was oft-criticized for lacking in that department. Tim Floyd left USC under a cloud of NCAA investigations and academic issues, and with a reputation for being able to recruit great talent but not coach it. Crediting a lack of enthusiasm for his job as the main cause, Floyd resigned on June 9, 2009. He was replaced by the ultra-vanilla Kevin O'Neill, who produced three-and-a-half ultra-vanilla seasons before being fired in January 2013.

Despite O'Neill's shortcomings, the majority of the ire being tossed around by USC hoops fans was still directed at Floyd, who had since taken the head coaching job at UTEP but was reportedly interested in a return to Los Angeles when the job opened. The feeling was not mutual. Adding fuel to the fire were claims from Floyd that Enfield, the newly appointed head of Trojan basketball, had tampered with the Miners' prized recruit, L.A. product Isaac Hamilton. Enfield was aware of this climate when he appeared at a luncheon with the bulk of the athletic program's top boosters in attendance and was asked about Floyd's claims.

"Tim Floyd shows up every day at work and realizes he lives in El Paso, Texas," Enfield said to a bevy of laughter and approving nods. "And he's pissed off that he didn't get the USC job two months ago. I told him, 'Tim, if I could have all this power to somehow convince a family to do this, why the heck didn't the kid come last spring, when I first got the job?'"

When the conversation shifted to rival UCLA and its own new head coach, Steve Alford, Enfield was equally prepared to feed the sharks.

"I don't worry about them," he said. "I've made it to one Sweet Sixteen in two years, and he's made it to one Sweet Sixteen in 18 years."

He went back into his office with a strut that would disappear the moment his team was forced to play an actual game.

Despite the bold talk, the truth was that Enfield had walked into a nightmare situation at USC. The Trojans, who had won just one more NCAA Tournament game in their last 11 seasons than Enfield had won in one year at Florida Gulf Coast, were made up of players unfit to thrive in Enfield's trademark up-tempo style ... or any other style. They went 2-16 in Pac-12 play and lost in the first round of the conference tournament.

The next year saw Enfield bring in players with skills and abilities more conducive to his liking, but without the experience to compete at a high level. USC's conference win total increased by only one, a fact largely attributed to the team being able to claim zero seniors and just one junior. That excuse did nothing for Trojan fans, as attendance for home games at the Galen Center dropped to an average of 3,553, lower than every Pac-12 school outside of Washington State.

"Let's be perfectly honest, the last two years have been dismal," USC athletic director Pat Haden told The Los Angeles Times last September. "I hate to talk badly about our past players, but we didn't have really Pac-12-caliber players. OK, we didn't have Pac-12-caliber players."

USC has Pac-12 caliber players now, and six of them -- all freshmen, sophomores or juniors -- are averaging double figures for Enfield. Leading the way is sophomore Jordan McLaughlin (12.9 ppg/5.2 apg), the headliner of Enfield's first recruiting class, which ranked in the top 25 nationally. McLaughlin's freshman season was marred by injuries, which allowed another youngster, current second-leading scorer Julian Jacobs, to emerge as an offensive leader. The duo now quietly exists as the Pac-12's most consistent backcourt.

"We brought the young freshmen in last year," Enfield said at Pac-12 media day last November. "We had no seniors and one junior. Our goal as a staff was to start with young players, develop them and let them play through the mistakes, and that's what we did last year. It's a process."

It's a process that appears on track to be completed ahead of schedule.

The season is still just two weeks old, but USC's hoard of young talent appears to be thriving a season earlier than expected. The Trojans currently find themselves at No. 25 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and among the top "others receiving votes" teams in human polls. Even those who took the hardest shots at Enfield over the past 24 months would be hard-pressed to not give him the lion's share for the resurgence that the USC program is experiencing at the moment.

The Trojans hearing their names called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2011 is still far from a guarantee, but the fact that it's even being discussed is the largest evidence yet that Enfield didn't simply catch lightning in a bottle for three weeks at Florida Gulf Coast. The results are starting to indicate that maybe the man knows what he's doing after all.

How about that?