- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The fireworks fizzled here before they really even had a chance to light up the sky.
Bummer. It might have been fun.
USC and UCLA have a terrific rivalry when it comes to the football teams. Which team is better? Which campus is prettier? Which cheerleaders are prettier?
But a rivalry in basketball?
Yeah, not so much.
How could they?
Here's the short conversation.
UCLA fan: We have 11 national championships. What you got?
USC fan, meekly shuffling away: Um, 11 NCAA tournament wins?
So when new USC coach Andy Enfield appeared to take a shot across the bow and aimed it directly at Westwood, well, finally there was something to talk about.
"We play up-tempo basketball here," Enfield was quoted as saying in the San Jose Mercury News. "If you want to play slow, go to UCLA."
Alrighty then, game on.
And then in the span of two hours on a lounge-lit stage at Pac 12 media day, Enfield and Steve Alford doused the fire with a bucketful of cold water.
Enfield didn't say he didn't say it -- he did -- but he said it in the middle of a practice, meant it for his players' ears only and laced the comment with a heavy dose of sarcasm, all of which got lost in translation from practice court to newsprint.
"I have a sarcastic personality," Enfield said. "I don't use a lot of profanity to motivate my players, but I do use sarcasm. I was very upset with my team in that particular moment in practice. I blew my whistle and that came out of my mouth. It was meant to make a point of how we want to play and to use some sarcasm. It certainly was not meant to disrespect Steve or what he's doing."
If Alford was ticked, he surely wasn't saying.
The disciple of Bob Knight did not go Bob Knight when asked about Enfield's comments.
Instead, he went Gandhi.
"I've got great respect for Andy," Alford said. "He had a very good season last year, and I respect what he's done. I wish him all the best. It's UCLA. We're concerned about building a model program."
The truth is, this is fun fodder but really much ado about nothing.
Coaches say all sorts of things in practice -- some even unprintable -- and usually the comments float and dissipate in the rafters, where they belong.
Still, it would be fun if somehow the blood could get boiling between the two basketball programs.
It also would be good for the Pac-12.
Here at media day, the theme of the day was how much better the league is. And it is.
Once derided for having little meat on the bone, the Pac-12 finally is getting its mojo back. Five teams earned NCAA Tournament bids a year ago, and of those five, two -- Oregon and Arizona -- went to the Sweet 16.
It's not going to be compared to the ACC or the Big Ten anytime soon, but it is no longer the game's punching bag, either.
Arizona is firmly back among the nation's best; Oregon and Colorado are on a steady rise; Lorenzo Romar has a potential sleeper at Washington; and Jahii Carson could help Arizona State turn heads.
"Maybe we deserved to take a little bit of a beating [as a league] a few years ago," Washington State coach Ken Bone said. "But those years are gone. Those are definitely behind us."
But nothing stokes the fires for a conference like a good crosstown rivalry, and nothing adds oomph like good basketball in a league's epicenter.
For the Pac-12, that's Los Angeles. If Enfield and Alford can get things going, preferably on the court as opposed to over the airwaves, the entire conference would benefit.
• Like everyone else in the country, coaches here were concerned and curious about how the new hand-checking rules will impact the game. "The way it was presented this morning, it could really have a revolutionary effect on the game, if they take it to the extreme as it was described today," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. Romar admitted he's concerned how his team, which likes to pressure defensively, will adjust. "We have to be smart in how we pressure," he said.
• Asked to name the top new players in the conference, virtually every coach got to one name -- Aaron Gordon -- and stopped. The Arizona freshman is drawing high praise across the league. "Aaron is a special player," Romar said. "He’s one of the rare young kids that come into college that is extremely talented but yet has a motor, and he has his goals, but at the same time he's very unselfish. I just don't know if that combination is out there much these days."
• Some player notes: Arizona State transfer Jermaine Marshall (from Penn State), who is expected to be a nice sidekick for Jahii Carson, is not practicing, sidelined with pneumonia-like symptoms. He should be back next week. ... Cal's Justin Cobbs, who had surgery on his foot in August, said he is about "80 percent" and expects to be ready to play when the Bears travel to Maui. ... Oregon is still awaiting word on Joseph Young's hardship appeal to the NCAA. The former Houston product transferred to the Ducks after his father, Michael Young, was reassigned by Houston coach James Dickey.