- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Something has always stood in the way. For decades, it was John Wooden's unapproachable dominance. For just as long, it was USC's inability to care about basketball. In recent years, even the Trojans' most engaged hoops moments -- a flashy new arena, the inspired hiring of Rick Majerus, apparent recruiting momentum under Tim Floyd -- have almost always fallen flat.
Majerus, who passed away in 2012, withdrew from the job after five days, citing his already flagging health (and, later, his mother's disapproval of the distance). Floyd's greatest recruiting success, landing star O.J. Mayo out of the ether, was subsumed by accusations that he hand-delivered an envelope of money to a Mayo handler; he resigned while under NCAA investigation in 2009. (Eventually, the NCAA ruling forced USC to vacate the 2007-08 season … during which USC won all of 21 games. If you have to vacate a season in which you won fewer than 30 games, you are doing it wrong.) Then came the Kevin O'Neill era, about which the less said the better.
Of course, it has not been the most enjoyable era of UCLA basketball, either. Sure, while USC was hiring and then not-hiring Majerus (and how different this story could have been had he taken the job) the Bruins went to three straight Final Fours under Ben Howland. But Howland lost control of his program soon after. George Dohrmann's famous Sports Illustrated piece ("Special Report: Not the UCLA Way," which is now every sports information director's go-to cold sweat nightmare) spelled impending doom, and one last-ditch recruiting class couldn't save the day.
A UCLA program brought low. A USC program with an aggressive, exciting young coach with nothing to lose. A great modern leveling has put both programs in places they aren't particularly accustomed to: recruiting against each other.
This competitive dynamic has been playing out in gyms and over text messages all summer, but it took until September for the first public salvos to be fired. On Sept. 2, Indianapolis native and top-50 2014 wing Trevon Bluitt committed to UCLA, the first proof of Alford's concept that his Indiana connections would give the Bruins a pipeline in the midwest. (Alford hired Bluiett's former high school coach, Ed Schilling, as an assistant.) Bluiett committed after a visit he shared with Louisville decommit and the No. 7-ranked 2014 point guard, Quentin Snider, whom analysts predicted would sign with UCLA.
Recruiting is a constantly shifting mass of causes and effects, actions and reactions. On Wednesday, Jordan McLaughlin, the No. 18 player in the ESPN 100, committed to USC. McLaughlin, who attended Etiwanda High in San Bernandino, Calif., was long considered a favorite to select UCLA. But the firing of Howland at UCLA and hiring of Enfield at USC -- and Enfield's ability to sell McLaughlin on a roll as his flashy uptempo distributor and, yes, UCLA's increased focus on Snider -- convinced the highly-touted point guard to choose the Trojans instead.
Then, on Thursday, Snider surprised almost everyone by choosing Illinois. (John Groce reportedly worked hard to get Snider on campus one last time before he made his decision. It paid off. Don't look now, but Groce is going to get Illinois good again in a hurry.) More cause, more effect: On Friday, Jeff Goodman reported that Isaac Hamilton, who initially signed with UTEP, had chosen his Southern California destination after all.
This is where things get especially confusing. Hamilton, you see, was the prize of UTEP's 2013 class. UTEP, as you may know, is coached by Tim Floyd. This summer, Hamilton had second thoughts about his letter of intent -- his family said he wanted to stay closer to home, wanted his ailing grandmother to be able to see him play. They were also "triggered," Hamilton's father said, by rumors that Floyd could return to USC. (For some reason, USC AD Pat Haden had called Floyd about the USC job. Your guess is as good as mine.)
Floyd is suspicious. He said he was called by two Pac-12 coaches and one WCC head coach saying Isaac was going to get out of his NLI. He called new USC coach Andy Enfield and told him to back off of Hamilton and said on June 4 he got a text from the Hamiltons saying that Isaac wasn't going to go to the first summer session and was concerned about what that would mean. […]
"I called Andy Enfield and he told me he's not taking Isaac Hamilton, that 'we're out of that.' But I told him the damage had already been done," Floyd said.
As recently as last week, Floyd was sticking to his guns.
"I'm sorry his grandmother is having health problems," Floyd said in July. "But what I'm doing, I'm doing for UTEP and for everyone else. The NLI is in place so you can field a team. Young people don't have to sign a national letter of intent. You can sign a scholarship paper. The policy is in place to protect the institutions after they've spent all this money in recruiting and built their schedule around and turned down other players."
Floyd's refusal to let Hamilton out of his NLI doesn't mean he can't play somewhere else. But it does mean he has to wait a season to play, and pay tuition while doing so. Which meant that a former USC coach was preventing a would-be USC player from playing at the school because he, the old USC coach, thought a new USC coach had been tampering. See? Confusing.
Even more confusing? After all that, Hamilton didn't even choose USC. He chose UCLA. From Jeff Goodman's report:
Hamilton, who is from Los Angeles, said he wanted to play closer to his ailing grandmother. He was thought to be headed to Southern California, but the Trojans backed off and UCLA wound up admitting him
just one day after new Bruins coach Steve Alford lost out on guard Quentin Snider to Illinois.
Causes and effects, actions and reactions. Elite recruits from California choosing between USC and UCLA; allegations of tampering leveled at a school that didn't even get the player they allegedly tampered with.
I think this means it's official. Begun, the SoCal recruiting war has. It's about time.
Something has always stood in the way. For decades, it was John Wooden's unapproachable dominance. For just as long, it was USC's inability to care about basketball.