Cohesiveness, toughness and excitement define USC women’s basketball heading into year one under Lindsay Gottlieb

USC enters the season hoping to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2014.

A photo of USC basketball head coach Lindsay Gottlieb

Playing as a cohesive unit is something many coaches preach, but few actually spend the necessary time on to achieve.

In year one for USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, cohesiveness is something that she has prioritized for the Trojans, spending countless hours with the team off the court to help it become a tight-knit group before its opening game of the season on Thursday against Hawaii.

“[Having team chemistry] allows you to get through tough moments in practice and games,” Gottlieb said. “It allows you to be willing to share the ball or do the dirty work or have your teammates back if you really care about each other off the court.”

Gottlieb’s effort to form a cohesive unit began as soon as she walked through the door after a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. During the summer Gottlieb used one of four hours a week she had with the team to work on building team chemistry.

Gottlieb believes strongly that without team chemistry it is difficult for even the most talented teams to be successful.

“Being bonded, being one unit and being together does not guarantee that you will find success, but not being so pretty much guarantees that you won’t reach your potential,” she said.

Along with team chemistry, toughness, preparation and attention to detail became points of emphasis for Gottlieb as USC began to spend more time on the court.

“Everyday we want to be the team that comes in the most prepared,” Gottlieb said. “That means how did you take care of your body, how did you read your scouting report, how did you do in your breakdown drills yesterday? We want to be the toughest team mentally and physically every time we step on the floor, and we want to be the most unselfish.”

The goal is to use those skills to improve defense and rebounding, two areas of weakness where USC finished 10th and 12th in the conference last season, respectively.

It starts with an attention to detail that begins at practice.

In practice, every time a drill is not done right, the whistle blows, then Gottlieb walks onto the court to correct the mistake.

The goal is to get everything right and to not let mistakes go uncorrected. For USC to improve in year one it requires the mental toughness and attention to detail that Gottlieb preaches and the players are starting to buy in.

“She brought [a culture] of grit and hard work,” senior guard Desiree Caldwell said. “She is obviously very knowledgeable and she has been skill developing a lot, and it is very exciting to see this team take on her [mindset].”

While the Trojans are trending in the right direction under Gottlieb, they have not suddenly transformed into a contender in the Pac-12 — one of the most difficult conferences in the sport.

But every moment spent on the court is used to try and reach that goal.

“If we work on the foundational things of who we want to be and how we want to play then that will set the stage for whatever success should be for this team,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb has confidence that with the right motivation, USC can have a great season.

“I don’t think this [USC] is a rebuild,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think this is a broken [team] that needs to be fixed. I think that this is a group that needs to understand what it takes to get beyond mediocre and get to elite basketball.”

That attitude aligns with Gottlieb’s goal for the season which is to reach the NCAA Tournament, something USC has not done in seven seasons.

In order to head back to the dance, USC will need to rely on its returning cast from a year ago including forwards junior Alissa Pili and graduate transfer Jordan Sanders along with sophomore Jordyn Jenkins who will look to make an impact in year two as a Trojan.

With some notable returners including a plethora of forwards, Caldwell says Gottlieb has prioritized player development to help each member of the team make an impact night in and night out in the Pac-12.

“[Gottlieb] has really stressed individual skill sets,” Caldwell said. “She wants everybody to put the ball in the basket first and foremost, and secondly she wants us to be very gritty.”

With an eye also toward the future, Gottlieb has high expectations for what this program can accomplish in the long term. Gottlieb believes USC has the potential to become an annual contender in the Pac-12 and nationally.

The belief that USC can be turned into a national powerhouse is one of the biggest reasons Gottlieb jumped back into college coaching.

“This isn’t a place that’s about being ok, this is a place in every single way that expects greatness from people and that’s the standard we want to set,” Gottlieb said.

While Gottlieb is constantly working toward her long term goals for the program, she is focused on taking it one year at a time starting Thursday with year one.

The players are equally excited to get the season underway. When asked what to watch for this season, Caldwell said this team is ready to have fun playing ball.

“We’re going to be pretty exciting to watch,” she said. “We’re a super close-knit group of girls off the court, so we’re just excited to show our new-found chemistry on the court.”

The season tips off Thursday against Hawaii at 7 p.m at the Galen Center.