Though I was a little more optimistic than most of the college basketball media who predicted the Trojans to finish 9th in the Pac-10, I didn’t expect much from a program reeling from an NCAA investigation, the loss of a coach who took them to 3 straight NCAA tourneys (Tim Floyd), the loss of 3 pivotal players to the pro ranks (all underclassman- Derozan, Gibson, Hackett) and the loss of a top 15 ranked recruiting class. Combine that with season ticket sales off over 55% and it is easy to assume the demise of USC basketball was in full effect.
However, ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb was correct when he said “tales of the demise of USC basketball are greatly exaggerated.” during USC’s victory over than #20th ranked UNLV in the finals of the Diamondhead Classic.
5 reasons why Trojan fans should plan regular trips to the Galen Center during the Pac-10 season:
1- The “Last chance” Team: Unlike the USC football team, the basketball team is full of players and coaches who have one of the key ingredients to overachieving: something to prove with no expectations.
The Trojans are led by first year journeyman coach Kevin O’Neal who desperately wants to re-ignite his career and a coaching staff held over from the Floyd era that is looking to impress other programs before O’Neal brings in his own guys.
The team boasts three transfers in Alex Stephenson from North Carolina, Marcus Johnson from Connecticut and Mike Gerrity from Pepperdine/UNC-Charlotte that are at the end of disappointing careers with one last chance to right the ship. Marcus Simmons and Nikola Vucevic still have sour tastes in their mouths for being underutilized on last year’s team.
When you combine players and coaches in a situation where no excuses are left, a strong will to win can develop. Everybody worked very hard in the off-season and now with the team at full strength, they play tenacious defense and are not only competing with top 25 teams, they are beating them.
2- Best Frontline in the Pac-10: It is scary to think how good this team would be if the program didn’t fall under NCAA scrutiny last year with Tim Floyd. Despite all of the losses, the Trojans possess a dominant frontline.
-more on the frontline, Gerrity, etc after the jump
6’10 Sophomore Center Nikola Vucevic gained about 20 pounds in the off-season and is an opposing presence that combines great footwork with a soft touch around the rim. He is very close to averaging a double-double with an average of 13.8 points per game to go along with 9.8 rebounds. In a loss to second rank Texas, he had 18 points and 14 rebounds going up against one of the best forward-center tandems in all of college basketball. If Vucevic develops a 3-point shot during his career at USC, he is a probable 1st round NBA draft pick.
After sitting out the first two games of the season, 6’9 Junior Forward Alex Stephenson is having the best season of his collegiate career after transferring from North Carolina. He is also close to a double-double averaging 10.4 ppg and 8.7 rpg. He has a very strong build (looks like he should be playing Tight End for the football team) and plays a very physical brand of basketball. He is not nearly as refined as Vucevic and is not as consistent but is capable of huge games. Against Tennessee, he had 19 points and 15 rebounds.
Despite missing most of the early season due to academic ineligibility, 6’7 Sophomore Forward Leonard Washington clearly made his presence felt in the past two victories over St. Mary’s and UNLV. He is a hard nosed player who is very physical but can step out and hit the 15 footer. He runs the floor well and provides O’Neal with a versatile player.
3- USC Finally Has A Point Guard: Since the tragic death of Ryan Francis, USC has not had a true point guard running the team, until now. Jack of all trades 6’1 Senior Mike Gerrity (aka The White Flash) finally provides the Trojans with a floor leader who can make things happen. He is lighting quick and an excellent ball-handler who can dribble through a press and attack a half-court defense with relative ease. He can get a little out of control at times but definitely makes the Trojan offense much more exciting to watch.
4- Tenacious Defense: The Trojans tremendous size in the interior allows them to really pressure the ball and not worry about being beat to the basket. USC almost wants opponents to drive all the way to the hoop where they will encounter Vucevic and Stephenson. The length and athleticism of Marcus Simmons and Marcus Johnson on the perimeter is a lot for opposing teams to handle.
5- Veteran Group: Though they have not played very long together, this is a veteran group of players that understand how to play when the bright lights are on. The experience and age factor (Gerrity 23, Johnson and Simmons 22) cannot be understated especially when you add into the mix starting Senior Guard Dwight Lewis who is averaging 12.5 ppg. The Trojans will definitely take advantage of this against a young and weaker Pac-10 conference.
The Trojans can comfortably play with an 8-man rotation but need to avoid any injuries to Vucevic, Stephenson and Gerrity to truly contend for a top spot in the Pac-10. If they avoid the injury bug, the Trojans will finish in the top 3 or 4 in the conference and have a strong shot at making a school record 4th straight NCAA appearance.
I never thought I would be saying the NCAA tourney and USC basketball in the same breath for the 2009-2010 season but it is clearly in the cards.
It all starts with a strong effort against a young and well coached Arizona team.