December 17, 2023 

USC seeking to build something special with homegrown talent

The Trojans are hoping to be at the forefront of expanding popularity for women's basketball.

Almost one year ago, USC pulled off a massive recruiting win with the commitment of JuJu Watkins who was the consensus No. 1 player in the country in the class of 2023. Watkins recruitment came down to the Trojans, Stanford and South Carolina with the Los Angeles native opting to stay home.

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Flash forward to the present and Watkins has been everything she was advertised as and then some. The freshman phenom has arguably been the best player in the country while sweeping the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards so far.

The Trojans are off to an 8-0 start and are currently ranked No. 6 in the nation. There’s a certain level of excitement around the team that hasn’t been there in recent seasons. It’s been incredibly noticeable to the point that USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb remarked after the Trojans’ most recent win against UC Riverside that in her three seasons as head coach, she has never seen this type of electric environment.

The other half of their double-header—where Bronny James, the son of LeBron James, made his college debut for the men’s team—certainly added some extra buzz, but people are paying attention to this team regardless of what their men’s team counterpart is up to. Having a homegrown star like Watkins only helps.

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Following the win against UC Riverside, Gottlieb sat at the podium for the Trojans’ postgame press conference alongside Watkins and fellow Los Angeles native Rayah Marshall and credited the pair with being at the forefront of the culture the team is trying to build.

“I can’t emphasize how necessary these two young women are along with their teammates. When I first got the job my first call was to Rayah to make sure she would stay … she was like, ‘I’m staying for my city and I’m staying for USC,’ Gottlieb said. “And JuJu having the courage to stay, she is necessary for women’s basketball to have an urban community come and feel like this is their team. It’s so much bigger than me and it’s bigger than even this particular crowd.”

Both Watkins and Marshall grew up not too far from USC’s campus. Watkins attended Windward and Sierra Canyon while Marshall played at Lynwood. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans. And both players have been spearheading this Trojan resurgence.

They’ve been the perfect inside-outside duo. Watkins is the perimeter-scoring sensation capable of getting a bucket from anywhere on the court. Marshall is the interior presence, grabbing boards, protecting the paint and getting easy scoring opportunities.

But more importantly, they’re working towards something bigger as Gottlieb mentioned. They’re looking to grow the game and bring women’s basketball to the forefront of the city.

“I think in the inner city you kind of grow up with a chip on your shoulder. . .I think that you just have a different drive … when I play, I’m playing for my teammates, my coach, my family but also for my city,” Watkins said. “Women’s basketball is just on a different level right now so I’m just glad to be a part of that. I think this team is taking a lot of ownership in the position we’re in but also striving to go even further with that. It’s just a great atmosphere and we’re super excited to be in the mix.”

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Watkins has been USC’s leading scorer this season at 27.3 points per game. That’s good enough for second in the nation behind only Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. She’s shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 47.6 percent from the three-point line.

Marshall is second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points and she’s leading the Trojans in both rebounds at 10.0 and blocked shots at 2.3. She’s shooting 54.8 percent from the field. She’s a double-double machine and among the best interior defensive players in the conference.

Marshall had originally committed to USC before Gottlieb was hired as head coach, but she decided to stay rather than enter the transfer portal. She’s been at USC now the same amount of time as Gottlieb and she’s been in awe of how the program has grown and continues to grow.

“Honestly I’m grateful. My first year I came here with Coach G as the head coach and I’ve been under her ever since,” Marshall said. “So it’s an honor to be here and just watch how she’s really turned this program around in a matter of three years. With the talent we’re bringing in, I really feel like the sky is the limit. We’re really just getting started and we’re just going to continue to work hard.”

Last season, the Trojans started off a similar 9-0 before they suffered their first loss at the hands of crosstown rival UCLA at the start of conference play. They have two more games this month against non-conference opponents before they begin Pac-12 play against UCLA once again.

Gottlieb has often spoken about making the annual USC/UCLA rivalry games the hottest basketball ticket in town even as both schools prepare to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big 10 next season. What is clear, though, is women’s basketball is experiencing a time of unprecedented growth in the city, and Gottlieb is thrilled to have a couple of hometown favorites leading the charge.

“Women’s basketball is really hot right now, why not LA? Why not this place?” Gottlieb said. “It’s happening faster, maybe, than I thought because of the way that we play and how magnetic these two and their teammates are. But it’s really impressive to see a crowd on a day like this. I can only imagine what it’s gonna be like for Pac-12 games.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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