USC seeks some NCAA tournament revelation amid isolation
It’s been a few days since Andy Enfield has seen the sun, so forgive the coach for a bit of delirium. Ever since USC arrived Monday at the makeshift bubble in Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament, there’s been no need for him, his staff or his players to step foot outside.
Inside the bubble, which covers roughly a square mile of downtown, every detail is carefully controlled, every movement carefully choreographed with the novel coronavirus and the hundreds of millions in lost revenue from last year’s canceled tournament in mind. That means near-total isolation for the 68 teams taking part, including the Trojans, who, like their contemporaries, could find themselves coping with some serious cabin fever if they continue to advance.
The extended isolation may not be so bad for USC, seeded sixth in the West Region, if it means moving past the first weekend for the first time in Enfield’s tenure. The coach has taken the Trojans to the tournament two other times, navigating them to two wins as an 11th seed in their last trip in 2017, only to fall just short of the Sweet 16.
But he’s never had a team as talented as this one; nor has he faced circumstances like the ones USC will face inside the bubble, where the magic of March must be hermetically sealed.
“It’s a little different,” Enfield acknowledged, “but we understand.”
There will be next to no fans roaming downtown or family and friends hanging in the lobby of the team hotel. Players will be able to observe the outside world from the skywalk that stands above the street, connecting the four designated team hotels to the nearby Indiana Convention Center, which houses 12 courts and six weight rooms. Each of the 68 teams involved also has its own dedicated meeting and film study room, where they also eat team meals.
When the time comes to actually play the games, six venues will host the tournament’s 67 games, most of which will be in Indianapolis. But 12 games will be played more than 50 miles away at Indiana’s Assembly Hall or Purdue’s Mackey Arena. That includes a First Four matchup Thursday between Drake and Wichita State, the winner of which will face USC on Saturday.
By then, at least Enfield knows his players will be well rested. When one player suggested that he “didn’t have his legs” during practice Wednesday, Enfield joked that assistant coach Jason Hart called him out.
“What do you mean?” Hart said. “You’ve been laying in a hotel room for a couple of days!”
How the circumstances might impact the actual tournament play, if at all, remains to be seen. But when asked about that new dynamic, Enfield harkened back to his Florida Gulf Coast team’s Cinderella run as a 15th seed in 2013. The energy in the building certainly won’t be the same as in years past.
“As an underdog, you had the entire arena,” Enfield said. “They like to see upsets.”
There will be some fans in each arena, with attendance capped at 25%. That means a few thousand will get to witness the final stretch of star freshman Evan Mobley’s USC career, which, until this point, has been played in front of empty stands.
Mobley, who this week became the first men’s All-American at USC since 2002, said he was disappointed not to be able to take part in the NCAA tournament as he’d always imagined it. But he’s still looking forward to his USC swan song, nonetheless.
“We have to do things a little differently,” said Mobley, chosen to the Associated Press’ second team. “Can’t really go anywhere by ourselves. We have to let people know what we’re doing. But it’s a great experience so far. I’d like it to be normal, like in past years, but it is what it is with coronavirus and everything.”
At least this year, the tournament will be played, and Enfield plans to make the best of it. On Wednesday night, the Trojans were finally able to make their way outside for a team photo. Standing on the top of a parking structure, in front of the giant bracket displayed on the downtown JW Marriott, Enfield finally breathed in some fresh air.
Then, the team took a few quick photos and headed back into their empty hotel rooms, with a few isolated days still ahead.