Gottlieb, USC will strive for consistency in NCAA tourney quest

Lindsay Gottlieb answers a question on Pac-12 media with junior forward Alissa Pili and graduate forward Jordan Sanders. Pac-12 Network photo.

If Lindsay Gottlieb has her way, the USC Trojans will have a Selection Show party next March.

The longtime coach took the helm of a program last spring that has had a lot of talent, but which hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014. The Trojans have vacillated from the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference at times to a solid spot in the middle tier of teams, but has been unable to finish well enough to play in the postseason. Gottlieb said the first goal is to make steadiness a habit.

“Our aim is to be consistent and make the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “We are teaching this team how to compete and how to be consistent enough to be able to win in the Tournament.”

Gottlieb, who coached against USC for eight years at Cal, said that in the past, the Trojans haven’t been as confident or competitive as they needed to be to “get over the hump” and push to the postseason.

“There will be teams in the Pac-12 at the top, and then there will be the middle teams,” she said. “The key will be to win those tough games, and learn how to do the things that keep you winning after you win those tough games.”

Gottlieb said the true measure of a team is how it shows out over the course of an 18-game season in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

“We are trying to teach them to be mentally and physically tough enough to win in this conference,” she said. “You’ve got to win on the road, even when you don’t feel great and when you aren’t shooting the ball well. Every game will be a gritty battle.”

The 44-year-old New York native took the Bears to the NCAA Tournament all but one of her years there, including making a Final Four trip in 2013. Gottlieb was an assistant coach for the last two years for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers before returning to the collegiate coaching ranks.

She has been pleased with both the talent she has inherited at USC, and by the group’s willingness to grow and improve.

“They’re embracing change, they’re incredibly coachable and they have bought in,” Gottlieb said. “They know there are lessons we will teach along the way, they are incredibly willing to step up and be leaders, and they are very open to reaching the next level.”

Gottlieb said the Trojans have talent all over the court. This begins with preseason all-conference team selection Alissa Pili. The junior forward was the Pac-12 freshman of the year two seasons ago, averaging 16.3 points and 8 rebounds per outing in starting all but one game. Her new coach said she is more than just a scorer.

“Alissa’s versatility is one of her strengths,” Gottlieb said. “She will be handling the ball quite a bit.”

USC will also rely on 6-5 center Angel Jackson and sophomore forward Jordyn Jenkins to clog the paint and put up points. Their coach said that having options down low is a plus.

“Jordyn Jenkins can really score the ball,” Gottlieb said. “Angel Jackson is one of a group of five that can dominate the front court, as a group.”

The back court is where the Trojans have experience. Senior Desiree Caldwell has run the point guard position for three years, and will play an instrumental role this season for a young team.

“The way she anchors us with her effort and intelligence is going to be really important,” Gottlieb said.

Lindsay Gottlieb comes to USC after spending two years with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant coach, and 11 years at Cal. Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group.

Grad transfer Tera Reed will add some shooting power, as she has averaged double-digits every year, as well as rebounds and assists. Another graduate, Jordan Sanders, is also a prolific scorer behind the arc.

Caldwell has three backup point guards in Kyra White, Alyson Miura and Bella Perkins. Two highly-anticipated freshmen – 6-6 center Clarice Akunwafo and 6-4 guard/forward Rayah Marshall – are also expected to contribute.

“We are too good of a group to have three sitting on the bench,” Gottlieb said. “My hope is that the five people we have on the floor are a threat, by committee.”

Already known as a tactician of the game in her collegiate coaching career, Gottlieb said her time in the NBA made her better for intensely studying the game.

“In the NBA it’s about basketball and dealing with people – none of the other stuff,” she said. “I spent my time watching film, tinkering with things and debating things with people. I was exposed to more, which is great, because my mind has expanded, which has allowed me to grow.”

That is particularly helpful this year as she inherits a team she didn’t sign, and one which is different than the team she left at Cal.

“We will try to shoot more threes and play more creatively,” Gottlieb said. “The way to help an individual is to help them get where they want to go. It’s about what impacts winning, which impacts everybody. Established teams are where winning comes first.”

The Trojans will see some challenges in preconference play, as they will face Missouri Valley Conference champions Missouri State next week and high-powered Iowa and UCF in a Cancun, Mexico Thanksgiving tournament.

Gottlieb admitted that facing her former school in Pac-12 play will be a little odd.

“I’m close with (head coach) Charmin (Smith), and we have a positive relationship,” she said. “I spent 11 years there as a head coach and an assistant coach, but life is about reinventing yourself. This is the 2.0 version of me and it’s time for me to do something special at USC. It’s strange, but it’s healthy, and change is OK.”

Then there is the fact that Gottlieb hasn’t worn the head coach shoes in a while.

“There are a little bit of nerves,” she said. “We played a close scrimmage the other day, and I try to be forthcoming with players that I haven’t stood up as a head coach in two years. It’s fun for me – a reinvention.”

The Trojans open the season Thursday at home, against Hawaii.