USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb lost sleep over the Trojans' overtime defeat to South Dakota State in the first round of the 2023 Women's NCAA Tournament, but she knows the team can now dream bigger than ever. USC added JuJu Watkins, the 2023 No. 1 recruit, but the momentum started well before her commitment.
"I think we'll always remember last season as one that kind of launched where we want to go with women's USC basketball," Gottlieb told CBS Sports.
In past years, the program hadn't been making a lot of noise and constantly fell to the middle of the pack in the Pac-12, but Gottlieb's arrival in 2021 has helped turn things around.
Results didn't happen overnight, but last January it became clear USC was heading in the right direction as the Trojans stunned then-No. 2 Stanford, 55-46. USC was ranked for the first time since 2016 the following month, and in March it reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 and third time in this century.
"I wish we had gone another game or two further in the NCAA tournament, but I also feel the journey was pretty spectacular with that group and there aren't a ton of regrets," Gottlieb said.
The team is currently working on playing fast in transition, defensive versatility and their overall fitness. Gottlieb said the culture has been established, and she feels this team is ahead of where they were a year ago.
"For me, going into Year 3 is maybe not trying to establish things as much as trying to take it to the next level," Gottlieb said.
Last year's team didn't have particularly impressive offensive stats, but their defense was solid, holding opponents to just 55.1 points per game. The Trojans lost several players from that roster, including its two leading scorers, Kadi Sissoko and Destiny Littleton.
The Watkins addition will help the Trojans keep their strong defensive presence while also improving their offense. Gottlieb describes her as "the full package," and her stats certainly paint that picture. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per contest last season at Sierra Canyon.
Watkins' skills are impressive, but Gottlieb said she was mostly blown away by her work ethic. She described Watkins as humble and, in some ways, a typical freshman.
The only other true freshman on the roster is 5-foot-6 guard Malia Samuels, who tore her ACL before the beginning of her high school senior year. The point guard has healed well and Gottlieb said she is not one to hold back.
"Her nickname is 'Pitbull' in workouts because she gets after it," Gottlieb said.
The roster will be filled with experience as USC added four grad transfers. Gottlieb said Kayla Padilla, who arrived via the University of Pennsylvania, is "silky smooth" and has a high basketball IQ.
Meanwhile, former Harvard guard McKenzie Forbes is proving to be a Swiss Army knife.
"She is positionless in the truest sense of the word," Gottlieb said. "She can play any position and her skill set is incredible."
There are plenty of new faces at USC, but the team currently belongs to the top returner, Rayah Marshall.
Marshall has 20 career double-doubles, and she averaged 12.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game last season. She also registered 98 blocks to set new single-season record for the program. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist is entering her junior year on a streak of 51 consecutive games with at least one block.
This summer, Marshall earned a silver medal with Team USA in the FIBA Women's AmeriCup -- an experience Gottlieb said has helped the guard/forward elevate her game.
"I think it has opened her eyes to the level that she can get to," Gottlieb said. "She was playing with some of the best players in our country and internationally, and I think it has only made her more hungry to grow her game.
"Her presence is really felt by everybody. It's great to see that maturation, the level of joy she has and how she is trying to get this program to unprecedented heights."
The Trojans are also returning their leader in steals, Kayla Williams, who was a Pac-12 All-Defensive honorable mention. Williams averaged 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds last season.
Gottlieb knows that unlike last year, her team won't be sneaking up on anybody this season. She said the standard has been raised, but her team is not going to shy away from the spotlight.
USC will be tipping off its 2023-24 season against Ohio State on Nov. 6 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas as part of the 2023 Hall of Fame series. The Buckeyes are fresh off the regional finals of the Women's NCAA Tournament and won't be an easy challenge. However, the Trojans are looking forward to the opportunity of proving how far they've come.
"I think there is a palpable buzz around USC basketball. I think people should be excited that we are raising the bar," Gottlieb said. "We have championship aspirations, we are not waiting. I think we have a roster that is going to make fans excited to come watch us.
"... This team is committed to changing the narrative of USC women's basketball."