USC Basketball Preview: Kevin O’Neill’s Make-Or-Break Year


When the Trojans picked up head coach Kevin O’Neill in 2009, they thought they were getting a blossoming branch off of the Lute Olsen coaching tree. Mike Garrett envisioned O’Neill to take a program with self-imposed sanctions and turn them into a position to build upon the success of the Tim Floyd era, when USC made the tournament three years in a row for the first time in school history.


Three seasons later, USC has failed to win a tournament game and instead have set records for futility, with Troy’s 6-26 season last year being the worst in the history of the program.

Several season-ending injuries, including the loss of point guard Jio Fontan, made it difficult for the Trojans, but their troubles on the court didn’t get any breaks in the stat sheet.  The Trojans were 343rd in the nation in scoring and rebounds, while shooting an abysmal 38.7 percent from the floor. Only Towson had a more inept offensive season than the Trojans, and they had one win all season.

Although most of the season was played with just six scholarship players, four of them playing with little or no NCAA experience, the performance was far below the standards for a team in the Pac-12, much less the Big West.

For a coach tied to the coaching philosophies of Lute Olsen and of enough regard to be called the Mad Scientist, even without four starters, simple execution of O’Neill’s offensive and defensive systems should have at least bettered the horrific peripheral numbers the Trojans posted.

The Trojans shouldn’t have been expected to compete for a conference title given the injuries, but for a Pac-12 team, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask for to finish better than 343rd in any statistical category.

For USC athletic director Pat Haden, the injuries were enough earn O’Neill a mulligan, as he decided to roll the dice on the coach, granting him one more season.

It’ll be a defining season for O’Neill and his team, as despite the setbacks a year ago, there’s pieces on this season’s roster that give the Trojans a chance of getting back to the level of expectations present when O’Neill was hired.

There’s more experience than in years past –including the arrival of three transfers that bring ACC and SEC experience– and Fontan is back, giving O’Neill’s half court offense a quarterback.

With Dewayne Dedmon back from injury and the arrival of Ari Stewart and Renaldo Woolridge, the Trojans won’t have to settle for playing the 6-foot-5 Byron Wesley in the paint, defending the likes of Washington State’ s Brock Motum or UCLA’s Josh Smith.

The Trojans have bodies this year, and for a system predicated on playing in the defensive zone first and slowing the game down, they’re in a far better position to execute O’Neill’s style, in addition to improving offensive, as was shown to be issue last season. Incoming transfer J.T. Terrell was fifth in scoring among ACC freshmen two years ago, and he averaged over 24 points-per-game last year at the junior college level.

While USC doesn’t have an individual talent as strong as Nikola Vučević, or the depth of talent they did five years ago in the heart of the Tim Floyd era, there’s enough to give Kevin O’Neill the opportunity of showing that he’s the coach of the future at USC. For Pat Haden, that was enough to bring him back and give him a chance with a healthy roster.

If he can get the Trojans to compete in a down Pac-12 and play to their talent, O’Neill’s stint at Troy will continue to breathe. If they have another dismal losing season, he just might need to amend his resume.