No more waiting in crowded airport terminals for Desiree Caldwell this year. USC's senior point guard, after three seasons of commercial flights that crisscrossed the Pac-12, got a taste of the high life as the Trojans flew on chartered flights for each conference game. Caldwell steered the Trojans through a coaching change and celebrated by bypassing security lines. She didn't have to empty her water bottles or dig her laptop out of her bag. She smiled for photos as she walked up the ramp into the private planes.
The same perk that has been a sticking point in the WNBA for years was standard practice at USC, where the athletic department made a clear statement to invest in its women's basketball program under first-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
But even with private planes and a retooled support staff, the Trojans didn't fully take flight in Gottlieb's first season.
USC (12-16) missed the NCAA tournament for the eighth consecutive season. The Trojans knocked off then-No. 4 Arizona in January for their first top-five win since 2014, but they finished 10th in the Pac-12, losing in the first round of the conference tournament to UCLA.
"This league is really hard, but I think we laid the foundation a little bit of what it takes to [win consistently]," Gottlieb said."We set that bar. Now we have to meet that bar and exceed that bar consistently."
Gottlieb inherited a program that had not been ranked in the top half of the Pac-12 in scoring defense since 2018. The Trojans, who went 11-12 before Mark Trakh retired after the 2020-21 season, had the conference's worst rebounding margin last season at minus-8.6. It ranked 318th out of 336 Division I teams.
Addressing defense and rebounding were at the top of Gottlieb's priorities this season. The Trojans improved only marginally on defense, allowing 64.7 points per game compared to last season's 68.9-point average, but grabbed 1.5 more rebounds per game than their opponents, jumping to 131st in Division I.
Rayah Marshall was at the forefront of the improvement with a team-high 7.7 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-4 McDonald's All-American was named to the Pac-12's all-freshman team after averaging 11.2 points, finishing the season with 11 consecutive double-digit scoring nights and notching double-doubles in four of her last five games.
"A lot of times you see freshmen hit a wall and actually decline at the end of the year," Gottlieb said. "She went the other way. She's extremely coachable, extremely patient, very willing to learn, she's physically gifted."
Marshall stuck to her USC commitment after the coaching change. Recruiting has started slowly under Gottlieb, who accepted the job in May 2021, a relatively late start considering recruiting cycles. The Trojans have no announced signees for the 2022 class but hold an oral commitment from five-star point guard Aaliyah Gayles.
Gayles, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Las Vegas, was named a McDonald's All-American in January and is the No. 8 prospect in her class, according to ESPN. She can make an immediate impact for the Trojans, who must replace Caldwell, their three-time captain.
Caldwell's influence went well beyond her minimal stat line of 3.5 points and 3.3 assists in 29.1 minutes a game. Gottlieb said the Trojans will miss the toughness and perspective of their seniors, which included graduate transfers Jordan Sanders and Tera Reed. Caldwell hopes those characteristics will set the standard for future success under Gottlieb.
"I can't wait to see what's next for her," Caldwell said, "and how she further just changes this program and truly restores it to what it's meant to be."
A return to prominence was why athletic director Mike Bohn targeted Gottlieb in his coaching search. The former California women's coach who led the Golden Bears to the Final Four in 2014 was the first NCAA women's basketball coach to be hired by an NBA team. She was in her second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers when she saw that Trakh had retired. When university statements are typically mad libs of recycled company lines and forgettable word salad, there was one line in USC's announcement that stuck with Gottlieb.
The program that was notorious for its limited investment around women's basketball in recent years was now, according to Bohn's statement "committed to providing the necessary resources to restore the illustrious tradition of excellence of the Women of Troy."
The promise wasn't just an empty news release.
Along with chartered flights on all Pac-12 trips, Gottlieb secured special gear shipments for her team, which received custom Nike shoes in January. She hopes to add program-specific positions for digital and social media and overhaul the strength and conditioning staff. With the growing importance of mental health in athletics, Gottlieb wants to advocate for the team's sports psychologist to travel with them to normalize seeking out mental health resources the same way players visit athletic trainers, massage therapists or academic advisors.
When she arrived in May, Gottlieb didn't realize the extent of what she needed to restore the program to prominence, but each suggestion was well-received by the administration.
"I feel as those conversations happen as readily with me as they happen with Lincoln Riley," Gottlieb said. "And that's a really special place to be."
USC is now waiting for a return on its investments in the form of wins.
A seventh NCAA women's selection show will pass without USC's name coming across the screen. The school hasn't had its men's and women's programs play in the NCAA tournament in the same year since 1997. Speaking on the phone from Las Vegas during the Pac-12 men's tournament that featured the NCAA tournament-bound USC men's team, Bohn dreamed of ending that streak with Gottlieb at the helm.
"I know that Lindsay and her team and her staff want to join us in that journey," Bohn said. "Our record didn't reflect the progress that we made, but boy you can see it in certain games and certain times, the brilliance of her ability to manage a game."