USC ’09-10 Preview
It’s hard to forget, especially when watching this squad.
When a hillside park in downtown Los Angeles became overrun with brush and weeds last year, the city brought in 100 goats to clear the area.
Kevin O’Neill might not be the goat of USC’s basketball program, but he sure has a lot of weeds to uproot from a program that needs more than a little groundskeeping.
The Trojans new head coach wasn’t even athletic director Mike Garrett’s first choice. But after whiffing on Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, Garrett settled for the familiar name in O’Neill.
As a strict disciplinarian with a record of running clean programs at Arizona, Northwestern, Tennessee and Marquette, O’Neill was an attractive stopgap solution for a program in turmoil. After stringing together its longest streak of consecutive NCAA appearances, USC was crippled by allegations that Floyd hand-delivered $1000 in cash to OJ Mayo’s handler.
Floyd decided to show himself the door before Garrett could walk him out. His departure in July and the specter of an intensified NCAA investigation led to three recruits being let out of their letters of intent and two verbal commits electing to play elsewhere.
Longtime program stalwarts Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson decided to leave school early and freshman phenom DeMar DeRozan made his expected jump to the NBA. The program that was once highlighted by a handful of star players was suddenly left without a marquee name.
And with a one-man recruiting class, O’Neill knows his first task is to get through year one without drawing too much attention to the immense rebuilding project he faces.
Dwight Lewis is the most prominent face left over from the brief glory years of the Trojans. The senior guard actually led the team in scoring for the season but ceded his role down the stretch when DeRozan found his stride during Lewis’ cold streak.
But with no incoming stars after the exodus of talent, Lewis will have to play an even bigger role in the Trojans offense. Even if he is able to slash and kick the ball out, he won’t find many teammates comfortable with making an impact offensively.
Marcus Johnson originally intended to join his former teammates on the way out of Los Angeles, but the UConn transfer and sixth-year senior was convinced to return for another season. The swingman was just beginning to tap into his potential when he injured himself on a dunk against California that kept him out of the next seven games. He is regarded as one of the team’s top defenders and most athletic players, but he will have to find a reliable jumpshot in order to be considered an all-around weapon.
UNC transfer Alex Stepheson should give the Trojans a much-needed reliable post presence after losing Gibson, who patrolled the paint so effectively for a team that lacked any other bulk during his stay. Stepheson routinely kept Gibson on his toes last year in practice sessions while he was sitting out of games. If the 6-9 forward can pass out of the post when double-teamed, he will become one of the conference’s best new faces.
Stepheson’s presence is especially needed after it was announced that forward Leonard Washington (sadly, no relation to the short-lived Chappelle’s show character of the same name) is academically ineligible for the first semester. The undersized Washington is most well-known for punching Blake Griffin in the groin last year, but the brawny forward gave the team a roughness that it will miss in the first few non-conference games. Forward Nikola Vucevic is expected to help fill the void.
The biggest hole for the Trojans is at point guard, where Hackett’s departure leaves plenty of unanswered questions. Donte Smith pondered transferring after the season but decided to stick around and is now one of the team’s lone options at the position. Defensive stopper Marcus Simmons might handle the ball more often out of pure need.
And yes, Percy Miller AKA Romeo is still around and on scholarship, but the next time he hears his name called might not be until Tennessee comes to town and fellow rapper/hooper Renaldo “Swiperboy” Woolridge demands a collaboration.
For all of the uncertainty that the Trojans face, there shouldn’t be a major shift in their approach under O’Neill. Defense will still come first and the team will have to scrap its way in nearly every game.
That could provide for some ugly early season returns with visits to Georgia Tech and Texas on a schedule that O’Neill has admitted was constructed for a team that intended to be more competitive than his current one. But with many teams in the conference also looking at down years, USC could at least find its way to respectability. The Trojans won’t be as bad off as Indiana was last year, but a fourth-straight NCAA appearance is almost certainly out of the question.
Maybe O’Neill can consider it after a few years of gardening.