TGIFS — Thank God it’s Football Season.
Thank God we have football season to numb our senses, tunnel our vision and help us forget about life outside the Coliseum. Because once December comes knocking, we will look outside the structure that hosted the grandest sporting event in the world — where hope, joy and optimism are found stitched in every flag — only to find despair, corruption and emptiness. And that’s just in our men’s basketball program.
In case you aren’t familiar with the recent developments of the USC basketball program, let’s go back to March 22, 2009. With less than two minutes left in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the 10th-seeded Trojans were down by two to the second-seeded Spartans of Michigan State. USC guard Daniel Hackett stole the ball and raced up court for the game-tying layup. But on the way, he lost the ball and with it USC’s dream of reaching the Final Four.
It’s ironic, looking back, on how it all played out, how the two teams in that game would end up going in complete opposite directions. Michigan State would go on to play in the national championship. After that crushing loss, USC would lose three players early to the professional ranks, its head coach and most of its recruits, but, most importantly of all, its dignity and possible appearances in future postseasons.
And all this is the result of one man who was playing in Memphis last season, O.J. Mayo.
You might recall O.J. Mayo. He was the highly publicized six-star recruit (if there ever was one) who decided not to play at powerhouses such as North Carolina, Duke or UCLA and instead made the curious decision to play at a school that had very little pull in the world of college basketball, USC.
For the 2007-08 season, Mayo captivated Trojan fans as arguably the most talented player ever to dribble a basketball in cardinal and gold. But then Louis Johnson, a former confidant of Mayo, made allegations that Mayo’s inner circle buddies, including Rodney Guillory, received about $250,000 from a sports agency. Johnson said that Guillory gave Mayo some of that money, which he used to buy clothes, a TV and other accessories.
NCAA investigations started then and are still continuing, but no official action has been taken against USC. The Trojans finished last season knowing that they could go to unprecedented heights next year, if everyone stuck around.
“If there is some way we can keep them together and add what we have coming back next year, we’ve got a chance to be a special team,” then-coach Tim Floyd said after the Michigan State loss.
But Floyd didn’t do anything to help his cause. Soon after the loss to Michigan State, he visited Arizona and interviewed for its head coach vacancy. He declined, but the loyalty his players felt to him hopped on that flight to Arizona and never came back.
After that, the landslide began. Freshman sensation DeMar DeRozan and juniors Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett all entered the NBA Draft (DeRozan and Gibson were selected in the first round, Hackett went undrafted), and senior Marcus Johnson left the school even after the NCAA granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility. Johnson’s departure finally made Floyd lose his cool, “Our guys get an offer from Islamabad and they’re gone,” he quipped.
These decisions to leave were influenced by Floyd’s interview, but also by a serious allegation that was made in May, when Louis Johnson came out again and said that Floyd gave Guillory $1,000 in February 2007 to spend at the All-Star weekend in Las Vegas.
Johnson told Yahoo! Sports that he thinks the money Floyd gave Guillory was a thank you “for Guillory’s efforts in delivering [Mayo to sign with USC].” Regardless of the intent, the money would be considered an extra benefit for Mayo, which is an NCAA violation. That was the final straw for Floyd, and it signaled the end of the USC basketball program as we know it, as one that had gone to a program-record three straight NCAA tournaments.
The NCAA turned up the heat and combined the basketball and football investigations. On June 9, Floyd, the man who made the football offseason a lot shorter for USC fans, resigned. Floyd cited lost enthusiasm for the job, and he left behind a program that will be feeling the repercussions of the O.J. Mayo saga for years to come.
USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett and the university didn’t even blink an eye and reacted as if they expected this. One can’t help but think that the allegations made by Johnson, combined with the NCAA investigation and Floyd’s resignation, were more than just a coincidence.
With all this in mind, and knowing the USC basketball program will most likely face disciplinary repercussions, recruits decommitted from USC quicker than you can say “disgraceful.”
First went Solomon Hill, who decided to go to Arizona instead. Then went highly ranked Noel Johnson from Georgia. Lamont Jones of Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy and Derrick Williams followed suit. In all, USC lost eight recruits, and only Evan Smith decided to stay.
Amid all this, the Trojans were also searching for a new coach, which isn’t easy in May and June. Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon was the only high profile coach that the Trojans pursued, and he quickly declined even though California is his home state.
So Garrett settled on Kevin O’Neill. You probably recall taunting him as he was walking off the bus into the Galen Center when he was the interim head coach at Arizona two years ago.
O’Neill has an extensive coaching background. He’s been the head coach at Tennessee, Marquette, Northwestern and Arizona, as well as the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Last season he was an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies. Unfortunately, he has lost a lot more than he has won. Still, during his last stint as an NCAA head coach, with Arizona in 2007-08, he went 19-15 and made the NCAA tournament, albeit with players legendary coach Lute Olsen recruited.
O’Neill is not a household name, and he shouldn’t be expected to rebuild the Trojans overnight. But already he has brought in a few recruits, and he has made more foreign visits than President Obama. O’Neill has gone from Montenegro to the island of Rhodes to visit every single current Trojans player and assure them of his promise to build a good, clean and competitive basketball program.
“I recognize that USC basketball has been through a tough time lately,” O’Neill said. “…I’m sure I am also going to be asked whether the NCAA investigation involving basketball is going to hurt recruiting or the program in general. Let me just say that if I thought I wouldn’t be able to do my job — do the job that the university expects of me and equally important that I expect of myself — I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
In two months, USC went from a top five team to a team that would struggle in the Patriot League. It seemed too good to be true: to have Hackett, Gibson and DeRozan come back and join the powerful recruiting class and make USC relevant in basketball. But in the end, everybody was just dreaming.
Now, Trojan fans have awoken to the harsh reality of the situation. But if there’s any silver lining in this, it lies in three returners that have game: senior guard Dwight Lewis, who averaged 14.4 points per game last year, sophomore forward Leonard Washington (which star player will he bring down next?) and former UNC big man redshirt junior forward Alex Stepheson.
This isn’t Indiana, which was leveled with NCAA penalties a year ago and welcomed back Kyle Taber as their leading scorer with a whopping 1.3 points per game. Yet the Hoosiers still managed to sell out Assembly Hall as their basketball team went 4-17. O’Neill is no Tom Crean, but in light the situation, the best Trojan fans can do is head over to the Galen Center and bring in all that hope, joy and optimism from the Coliseum.
The USC men’s basketball program certainly needs it.
“Spittin’ Sports” runs on Fridays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org.