They danced in the rain on Figueroa Avenue, a throng of trumpets gathering to serenade the brightest star on campus in a glorious return.
Sheer joy erupted this Sunday night, through storm and wind and smiles breaking free from ponchos, USC’s Spirit of Troy student band braving the elements to surprise the women’s basketball team as soon as it got off the bus from a trip up north. Fresh off conquering Stanford and Cal, teammates formed a sort of impromptu-dance circle around freshman JuJu Watkins, swaying to the instrumental of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win.” Watkins, somehow, ended up with a mock Trojan sword in her right hand; she hit a little jig, senior McKenzie Forbes grabbing her hand and combusting in laughter.
They are the best show on campus these days, the greatest source of pride around USC, a once-dormant program rising to national contention as Watkins has single-handedly accelerated a program rebuild set in motion by third-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb. The freshman is a magnetic blend of natural charisma and prodigal skill, nearly breaking basketball Twitter with a record-breaking 51-piece against Stanford; the world has woken up to Watkins, and her rising tide is soaring all boats. A few days ago, Gottlieb gathered her team for a preview of Watkins’ SLAM Magazine cover, teammates trading awestruck grins as Watkins bowed her head in a mixture of embarrassment and humility.
“I think it’s important – like, how many faces of the game at this age have been young African-American women?” Gottlieb said in early January. “Like, she should have her own Nike shoe, at some point. She should be the center of a campaign.”
Behind Watkins, Forbes and junior big Rayah Marshall, they are the trailblazers. They are the upstarts. They are the hunters, dancing in the rain.
Check that. They were.
There is no way to operate under the radar anymore, when Watkins physically broke the radar after vanquishing then-No. 4 Stanford. Teams in the Pac-12 are throwing entire defensive schematics at Watkins, forced too to respect Forbes, USC (16-4, 6-4 in Pac-12) faced with the reality that they’re ranked No. 10 in the country and close to the top of a rebuild that started just two years ago.
“Now, all of a sudden, it’s shifted to, ‘Dang, we know they’re good, and we’re going to put all our eggs into trying to stop them,’” Gottlieb said Jan 31. “And so, we’re talking to our team about, ‘OK, then, what’s next for us?’”
After USC lost to Washington in a sloppy game Jan. 28, continuing an up-and-down stretch in the Pac-12, Gottlieb hosted the toughest film session of the year that following Monday. On-court adjustments needed to be made, sure; but the group’s mentality had to shift, the coach reflected. Washington – and other teams – were taking aim at USC. Not the other way around.
“Sitting at 4-4, I should have everyone’s attention,” Gottlieb said Jan. 31. “We’re not ahead of – like, now our standards for ourselves are really high.”
They responded in kind over the weekend, Watkins carrying them against Stanford and then a variety of Trojans chipping in against Cal.
“We’ve got plenty of opportunities to also be the hunter,” Gottlieb said, “but we gotta also understand that, in the midst of that, we’re the hunted quite a bit.”
The X-factor in the middle of that, with a deep run into the NCAA tournament legitimately possible, is Marshall, who got off to a dominant start but has looked disengaged offensively ever since missing USC’s rematch with UCLA in January. In her first 11 games, she averaged 13 points a game on 51.3% shooting; in six games since her return, she’s averaged 3.7 points a night on 31% from the floor. The Pac-12 is ripe with dominant bigs – conference success down the stretch will hinge largely on Marshall’s ability to rediscover a presence and rhythm in the paint.
“I need to do a better job of freeing her up and getting her good, early looks, and I think she needs to be confident and fight her way to some easy ones and get to some things she knows she can get,” Gottlieb said. “And I’m sure she’ll get her rhythm back, and her confidence back.”
She’s got a prime opportunity Friday against Arizona State (10-12, 2-8 Pac-12), a team without much of an interior presence and without a single player who averages even five rebounds a game.
No. 10 USC vs. Arizona State
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Galen Center
TV/radio: Pac-12 Los Angeles/790 AM