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    The ‘Portal House’: How USC’s Eric Musselman pulled in a wave of transfers
    • June 13, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — None of them dared to sleep until Eric Musselman’s eyes grew weary, tethered to their phones until he’d give the unofficial OK to clock out for the night.

    Finally, the unbridled motor churning inside Musselman’s 5-foot-7 frame would stall, and he’d trudge upstairs toward a master bedroom and a few hours of rest. Then, and only then, would a handful of his USC assistants-turned-roommates – son Michael Musselman, Anthony Ruta, Will Conroy – scatter to individual corners of their shared spring home in Manhattan Beach, ringing their wives and families for a few fleeting moments before crashing.

    They had a barren men’s basketball roster to fill at USC with Musselman’s arrival in April, and precious little time to build it, each day the same relentless grind of another recruit hitting the portal and another flurry of texts and FaceTimes.

    Waiting, each night, for Musselman to announce he was going to bed so everyone else could, too.

    “You just felt like, if Michael Musselman was over there on the phone with a recruit, and Anthony Ruta was talking to a recruit,” Conroy said, “it’s like, ‘I can’t be on FaceTime with my wife. I gotta be FaceTiming with a kid.’”

    This is how the Muss Era of USC basketball was built, with 30 days in a rental home 50 yards from The Strand, a working-man’s Animal House for a group of coaches trying to piece together a team from scratch that could compete in the Big Ten Conference. With families still working on moving to Southern California, they’d obtained the lease not long after Musselman was hired at USC, the former Arkansas head coach collecting most of his staff under one roof to centralize a recruiting frenzy.

    Musselman would hand-dry his USC T-shirts on the front porch. Michael Musselman and Ruta slept in a bunk bed. They’d all stroll down The Strand for dinner together every night, hitting one pizza joint so often Conroy joked to the owner he should put an Eric Musselman special on his menu.

    Within a month, they’d filled the roster.

    “It wasn’t a frat house,” Musselman grinned Thursday morning. “It was a Portal House.”

    In the mornings this spring, as Conroy attested, Musselman would get up around 5 a.m. for a seven-mile walk. He and staff would head to the Galen Center around 7 a.m., leave around 4 p.m. grab dinner, and then settle in back in Manhattan Beach to recruit for roughly five hours straight.

    Nobody, Conroy remembered, would put their phone down.

    “It’d be like midnight,” Musselman remembered Thursday, “and I’d say, ‘Hey, what about that guy from so-and-so college?’”

    Longtime head coach Andy Enfield’s departure sent virtually USC’s entire roster scurrying, and Musselman entered Southern California in early April playing from behind, with just Harrison Hornery and walk-on JD Plough returning and the portal already having been open for weeks. And the hardest part of the process, Musselman reflected Thursday, was securing the initial wave.

    USC has brought in 11 transfers this offseason, as active as any program in collegiate basketball, by simple necessity. The coaches reached out to countless more. Some of their first targets who they’d brought in on visits, Musselman said, didn’t commit.

    “A lot of it was, ‘Well, we didn’t know who we were going to play with,’” Musselman said.

    The sanctuary in Manhattan Beach, more than just a home base, became a recruiting tool. Musselman would encourage staffers to take FaceTimes with recruits out on The Strand, strategically placing miles of beach in the background behind them. Quickly, the floodgates opened, a wave of carefully targeted veterans wooed by Musselman’s fire and the promise of USC’s brand.

    They snagged 6-foot-7 forward Terrance Williams after four years at Michigan. They plucked graduate transfers Matt Knowling and Clark Slajchert out of the Ivy League. Proven mid-major studs like Boise State’s Chibuzo Agbo Jr., Bowling Green’s Rashaun Agee and Northern Colorado’s Saint Thomas hopped aboard.

    On one day this spring, Conroy remembered, the staff was sitting on their porch in Manhattan Beach when Musselman’s phone rang. It was Xavier transfer Desmond Claude, whom USC was pursuing hard in dire need of a point guard.

    “Coach, I’m coming,” Claude told Musselman, Conroy remembered.

    Musselman roared.

    “People, like, was in their houses looking at, where’s this noise coming from?” Conroy said.

    Suddenly, the program is littered with 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 gamers who can shoot and run the floor, Thursday an early glimpse of the ecosystem similar to those Musselman became known for at Arkansas and Nevada. They moved in constant motion at USC’s fourth summer workout Thursday morning, media getting their first glimpse at this grand experiment, the cavernous upstairs practice court at the Galen Center echoing with grunts and cries and veteran barking.

    Musselman didn’t remove his foot from the gas, only pausing to chastise the act of jogging.

    “I don’t want to do what I did last year,” Musselman said Thursday, after coming off a 16-17 season at Arkansas, “but I want to do what we did in other years, which is create a team that cosmetically, people are like, ‘I want to go watch that team play.’ And then, a team that opposing teams respect for how hard they play.”

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    The monthlong lease has expired on their Manhattan Beach bunker, and Musselman has settled into his new home, his family finally getting situated in Southern California. It’s well time.

    None of the coaches cooked, so every meal was eaten out. Sleep was minimal. Ruta went so stir-crazy he moved out after a couple weeks, replaced by Conroy. And yet, the nostalgia of a basketball hive-mind lingers fondly, the beginning of a fresh start for USC.

    “He moved into his new place,” Conroy said, “he kept texting us.”

    “Like, ‘I miss the Portal House!’”

    ​ Orange County Register