How USC women’s basketball brought in a group of impact transfers — and why it’s worked

Lindsay Gottlieb had a daunting task ahead entering this past offseason, but she’s come out of it with an NCAA tournament bid and a program trending in the right direction.

Okako Adika, Destiny Littleton, Kadi Sissoko, Taylor Bigby and Kayla Williams huddled up.

After her first year in charge, USC women’s basketball head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was left with just six returning players heading into the 2022-23 season. The program had to replace all five starters and two-thirds of the team’s minutes from the previous season.

How in the world do you rebuild from that?

Thanks to recent tweaks made to NCAA rules, Gottlieb had a pretty easy fix.

Enter the transfer portal.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that there was one specific thing that brought all seven transfers to USC women’s basketball this past offseason.

“These players that came have a lot of faith in me and us that we were going to win,” head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said, “because they all wanted to win.”

But this program hasn’t exactly been synonymous with winning as of late. The Trojans hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2014 and hadn’t been relevant on the national landscape this century.

So, in her second season with USC, Gottlieb had to build the foundation of a winning program. She has a proven track record of success across different programs, leading UC Santa Barbara to multiple Big West titles and Cal to the Final Four in 2013. She’s also coached at the highest level, spending multiple years as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Whatever the inspiration, it is clear that Gottlieb had a specific blueprint for restoring USC to national prominence.

“Lindsay is really focused on culture and the rebuilding of the future for USC, not just this year,” junior forward Koi Love, a transfer from Vanderbilt and Arizona, said.

“Lindsay made it clear that she wanted to create something special,” graduate guard Rokia Doumbia, a transfer via Arkansas and Purdue, said.

“Here, we have a bigger purpose,” graduate guard Okako Adika added. She’s played at Odessa College, Butler and TCU en route to USC.

The theme of changing the program’s culture — and being the start of something special — came up often among these transfers, as well as Gottlieb.

“We were really intentional at the end of last year that we had a vision for the direction of the program,” she said. “The conversations we had with potential transfers were very specific about what they wanted and what we were looking for. … We really were able to hit the jackpot and bring in seven players who have helped us develop this culture.”

Gottlieb knows that broader, substantive relationships are important in not only recruiting transfers — as opposed to 16 and 17-year-old high schoolers — but also building that driven, bright culture she repeatedly stresses. After all, many of the transfers cited their prior connection to their new head coach, who previously recruited them while at Cal, as another major reason for coming to USC.

Not only was Gottlieb’s pitch about the program itself attractive, but there’s a larger phenomenon that contributed to the team’s allure to transfers.

There’s an interesting parallel that can be made to another group across campus. Gottlieb and USC football head coach Lincoln Riley have both had rather similar experiences over the past year: using the transfer portal early in their coaching tenure to quickly retool a talent-deficient roster of a program that’s had national success in past years.

Gottlieb argues that USC has been an optimal platform to bring in transfers in this evolving era of college sports.

“The USC brand name has name recognition across the country. I think we had instant credibility with calling players in the portal that they would pick up the phone and listen, because it’s USC,” she said. “Two, we have so many incredible graduate school opportunities that makes this a really desirable place.”

That’s how Gottlieb was able to find an eclectic group of newcomers to begin that something special. But even then, how would it all fit together? It’s hard to blame the media and coaches for picking this unknown squad to finish ninth in a deep Conference of Champions in preseason polls.

However, if you ask this group, that unfamiliarity has actually been a bit of a blessing in disguise.

“People don’t really know what to expect,” Oregon transfer and redshirt freshman guard Taylor Bigby said. “You can’t go look at film of us all playing together, unless it’s from this season, which still isn’t technically a lot to look at.”

The underlying benefits of having so many transfers are even more pertinent off the court. The seven players arrived by way of many different backgrounds, from Mali to Paris to Denmark, from the Big West to the Big Ten to Pac-12 rivals, from junior college to former national champions. Nevertheless, the group has quickly created a strong bond: relating to each other’s struggles and shared experiences.

“It does [help] because you’re not the only one in your position,” junior guard Kayla Williams, a UC Irvine transfer, said. “There’s other people that know what you’re going through.”

“It’s great having other people go through the process with you,” Love said. “Most of us are just figuring it out, just like the coaches are. So it’s been us bonding through that and being able to understand each other through that.”

It hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole time, of course; it takes time for so many new pieces to adapt. USC lost three of its first four games in conference play, and its offense has been inconsistent at best during portions of the season.

“We have our ups and downs, and it’s difficult trying to put together a team that hasn’t played together at all,” graduate guard Destiny Littleton said; she’s another two-time transfer from Texas and South Carolina that originally committed to USC out of high school. “I think we know each other now, but there’s still moments when we don’t really know each other. This comes with time we didn’t have, but I think we definitely made the most out of everything that was presented to us. … At the end of the day, we’ve had way more ups in playing with each other than downs.”

“You don’t know who you’re going to play with,” Syracuse and Minnesota transfer graduate forward Kadi Sissoko said. “Often it can be hard to build chemistry over the months. So, it’s very challenging, but I like it.”

Sissoko welcomes that test particularly because she knows that it will be valuable experience at the next level. As the Trojans’ leading scorer this season averaging 15.6 points per game, the versatile big has professional aspirations after she graduates this year.

“You’re going to come to a new team, be signed and make money,” Sissoko said. “But you won’t know who your teammates are, you will have a new coach and you need to adapt and be ready to play and win, because that’s what it takes. You’re not always going to have time to adjust, but that’s part of playing professionally.”

You’ve probably sensed a trend by now within these transfers: four are graduates playing their last season of college basketball, and five have transferred at least twice. That veteran knowledge, as seen in Sissoko’s mentality, is arguably the biggest key to the Trojans’ instant success this season. In particular, Gottlieb says the team really hit its stride in mid-January, when USC won six of its next seven games after that slow start in Pac-12 play.

“It’s taken a lot of work and time, because when you have someone who’s been in another program or multiple programs, they’re not coming in with zero knowledge,” Gottlieb said. “They’re coming in with what they’ve learned from other places. … So, I think what we’ve done is continually [help the transfers] find their own identity.”

Not only has specific basketball insight been important, but also the different kinds of leadership among the team. This group of transfers features many unique types of leaders, ranging from Littleton’s loud voice and national championship involvement to the quieter maturity of international players like Sissoko, Doumbia and Adika.

Combined with the familiarity of program veterans like four-year Trojan senior guard Alyson Miura, Gottlieb has enjoyed how this diverse group blends together. In turn, that sets a precedent for the future of the program as well, inspiring younger players like Bigby to carry on that something special.

“I’ve learned patience for sure, because they’ve all been in college for five or six years,” Bigby said. “And then leadership … I want to follow in their footsteps.”

This quick closeness that’s developed off the court also perhaps relates to the Trojans’ main strength on the hardwood: its tenacious team defense. Though sophomore big Rayah Marshall, who is second in the nation in blocks per game, leads the defensive effort as a holdover from last season, these transfers have made a massive impact especially on that end of the floor.

Adika and Williams were both named Pac-12 All-Defensive Honorable Mentions. Williams in particular was a defensive rock due to her intensity on the perimeter, finishing top 10 in the conference in steals per game. Sissoko also contributed important production on the boards alongside Marshall. But the Trojans’ cohesive nature as a group is really what steered them to lead the conference in points allowed and defensive efficiency — both by significant margins.

“You always have your goals coming into the season,” Williams said. “All of us know that we each can play defense and get to a spot when we need to. So, just to see that come together multiple times is amazing.”

After such a chaotic and challenging offseason, Gottlieb acknowledges the satisfaction that comes from the program immediately accomplishing its NCAA tournament goal. But she still isn’t too surprised to be here.

“[The offseason] was hectic but fun, and it was a building experience,” she said. “We brought people here to win and to win quickly … It’s almost surreal, seeing that vision come to fruition is something I am really proud of.”

The job isn’t done, though. These transfers, especially the outgoing graduates playing in their final college games, still have work to do. It relates back to the main reason for why they came to USC in the first place.

“Win,” Williams said. “Survive and advance.”

“It’s different when you have nothing left after the NCAA tournament,” Littleton said. “Just being a senior, I’m taking it way more to heart than in years before. … There are Cinderella teams, and we could very well be one of those teams.”

So, the only thing left now is to find out if the shoe fits.