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How A Player's Coach Built a Contender In Southern California

During the 2023-2024 college basketball season, many teams were entertaining to watch while they competed for a championship. One of them was the USC Lady Trojans accompanied by their star freshman, Juju Watkins. They accomplished a lot of success last season thanks to the players in the program and the coach who built it. Their Head Coach, Lindsay Gottlieb (GOT-LEEB), completed her 3rd season with USC, and her success has been rewarded with a contract extension. As she continues to build closer towards the ultimate goal, there's no question the Trojans have the right woman to lead them.

Gottlieb was hired as the coach for the Trojans in 2021, hoping to turn around the program from many losing seasons. She came to USC after most recently spending time with the Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant coach from 2019-2021. In her first year with the Trojans, she finished 12-16, and that would be the last time she finished under .500. In Gottlieb's second season she lead USC to a 21-10 record, their best since 2013-14. That is also when they last made the NCAA tournament and they did it again in 2023 as an 8-seed. Although the Trojans future looked bright, Gottlieb knew bigger things were coming after landing Watkins, the top recruit in the country. Watkins put her trust in Gottlieb and the USC program, and in return got the pieces around her to succeed. Success came to her and the team right away in the 2023-24 season as they finished 29-6, and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans also won their second-ever Pac-12 tournament, which granted them their first 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament since 1985-86. Their success brought them to the national spotlight, and proved Gottlieb's reputation to be the ultimate player's coach.

A player's coach is someone who relates their players in every aspect of the game, both on and off the court. Gottlieb played basketball during her college years at Brown University, before pursuing coaching seriously as a career. Her wealth of coaching and playing experience gave her the ability to relate to the player's she brings to the program. Thanks to her expertise, top players like Watkins also want to come play for Gottlieb, and that isn't changing anytime soon. USC landed the top freshmen class in the country, which included guards Avery Howell and Kennedy Smith. When asked what appealed to her about Gottlieb as a coach, Howell spoke about how her coaching style is somewhat familiar to her club playing days. "She's the definition of a player's coach, and that's how my club coaches were and I had an amazing experience with them." she explained. Smith also described Gottlieb's connection with all her players and how that kind of relationship is important to her. "For me player-coach relationships are really important, and I feel like she has a good connection with her players and she wants the best for them whether it's on or off the court."

Smith and Howell also discussed Watkins' trust in Gottlieb and the program that allowed the Trojans to win a lot. "Juju taking a risk to commit to USC even though they weren't the best in the past years, I think that was a bold move for her," Smith explained. "The fact that she brought (the program) up in just one year is really big coming into (the next season)." Howell spoke about the culture Gottlieb is building, and how that led to the success once Juju put her trust in the program. "I thought the culture that (Gottlieb) is building at USC was really special and I wanted to be a part of it," she mentioned. "I could just feel what (Gottlieb) was trying to build and Juju put her trust in that program." The freshmen aren't the only players who put their trust in the Gottlieb's philosophy, as they've also been successful in the transfer portal.

Before the 2023-24 season, USC landed Mckenzie Forbes from Harvard, who won the Pac-12 Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award in her final year. The relatability to Forbes of being an Ivy League grad worked in Gottlieb's favor, which helped validate her as a player's coach. With a successful season and two WNBA draft picks, more top players from the portal want to play for her. Former Stanford Cardinal forward, Kiki Iriafen (Ear-E-Ah-Fen), became the top transfer in the portal then committed to play for Gottlieb. Shortly after Iriafen committed to be a Trojan, former Oregon State guard Talia von Oelhoffen (TALL-E-UH Von Ol-Hoffen) also decided to play for them. The trio of Watkins, von Oelhofen, and Iriafen should make them the favorites to win their new conference, the Big 10, and go farther in the NCAA Tournament. As more eyes are going to be on the Trojans this next season, extra attention should be on their trusted leader: Lindsay Gottlieb.


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