The time has come for the USC Men’s Basketball team. After biding their time during a year plagued by postseason ineligibility, the USC Trojans return to the hardwood for their second season under head coach Kevin O’Neill, looking to restore prestige to the program.
It won’t be easy, though. Coming off a decent season in which the team amassed a 16-14 (8-10) record, the Trojans have brought in some notable talent via recruiting and return two frontcourt starters Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, a duo that my partner Alejandro Madrid has christened the best frontcourt in the PAC-10. Vucevic is a talented shooter and rebounder who adeptly uses his height to his advantage. Stepheson is a bruiser who features incredible strength and athleticism, though his offensive skills are yet a bit raw.
The newcomers include Maurice and Bryce Jones, a pair of guards with significantly different skill sets. Maurice, who’s nearly identical to Nate Robinson in both skill and stature, will kill opponents with his athleticism, speed, and toughness. With Mike Gerrity’s departure, he’ll have to step up and lead the offense from the point-guard position. Bryce, on the other hand, is more of your typical shooting guard, who combines a knack to penetrate to the basket with a good touch from the perimeter. Joining these two fellows in December is Jio Fontan, who transferred from Fordham after a 15-point, 4-assist campaign there.
Even with all the new firepower on the team, the Trojans’ focus will remain where it has traditionally lied over the last few seasons: on defense. After Tim Floyd demonstrated that USC could claw its way into the NCAA Tournament with a staunch commitment to defense, O’Neill (a defensive specialist, to be sure) came in and duplicated that game plan. This year, he’s looking to follow the formula again. Surely, USC will be unable to score with the best of its counterparts in its conference, so its only recourse must be to shut them down with suffocating defense.
Using the season opener against UC-Irvine as a basis, the Trojans still have a lot of improving to do. While the defense was impressive (the Trojans held the Anteaters to 49 points and 34 percent shooting ) and the rebounding margin was astounding (USC outrebounded Irvine 44-26), the offense was a whole other story. For most of the game, USC looked absolutely stagnant on that end, simply tossing the ball around the perimeter like a middle school girls basketball team and firing up a jump shot with 3 seconds left on the shot clock. They could not make an entry pass to save their lives, and when they did get it to one of the big men in the key, he’d promptly kick it back out when the double-team came. Yes, these struggles will begin to dissipate over the course of the season, but with a fairly easy out-of-conference schedule, USC needs to get in a groove quickly to knock off the winnable games.
The other manifest worry from the season opener was the team’s lack of depth. USC only put seven players on the floor during the contest, and one of those seven players, Garrett Jones (another recruit), only had three minutes. Mo Jones had to play the whole game, and Vucevic and Stepheson were a combined four minutes short of doing so also. While Fontan’s eligibility will alleviate some of the playing time worries in the backcourt, it’s important to consider if USC will be able to last the entire season — even barring the potentially devastating event of an injury, particularly in the frontcourt.
As I mentioned previously, USC is fortunate to have a fairly light nonconference schedule. The highlights of this year’s slate of contest are: vs. No. 25 Texas on 12/5; @ No. 7 Kansas on 12/18; and No. 20 Tennessee on 12/21 (back-to-back games). Other than those three, the other games are certainly winnable, with potential speedbumps at Nebraska on 11/27 and at TCU 11/29. If USC can enter conference play at 11-2 overall, it would set them up great for the remainder of the season. For those of you who believe they’ll lose all three ranked games, recall the victories over ranked teams Tennessee and UNLV last season.
As for conference play, no one looks that highly upon the PAC-10 this season (with the exception of Washington), and USC needs to take advantage. These games are impossibly difficult to predict, but USC must avoid crucial losses like last year’s debacle against Washington State in order to hold out hope for the Big Dance. In fact, without a stellar record, USC might just have to set its sights on winning the PAC-10 tournament in order to assure playing time in March.
I’m really not the best at predicting teams’ performances, but my guess for USC this year is: 21-10 (11-7).