Without stepping foot on a court for a game in nearly eight months, the USC men’s basketball team made headlines around the country.
But starting tonight, the Trojans can put all of the chaos and tumult of the offseason behind them and finally turn their attention to basketball, when they open their season against UC Riverside at the Galen Center.
Debuting tonight will be a USC team that has experienced tremendous turnover and will bring an almost entirely new look and feel to the court this season.
USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who took over the program after Tim Floyd resigned in mid-June, oversaw the drastic change the Trojan squad experienced in the interim months — all while trying to get to know the program inside and out on the fly.
“I’m just learning our team really,” O’Neill said at Pac-10 Media Day.
Trojan fans may have some trouble figuring out the new team as well, since most of the core of the 2008-09 team is no longer suiting up for the Trojans.
Included in those losses was nearly 70 percent of the team’s scoring, including point guard Daniel Hackett — who is now playing professionally in Italy — and forwards DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson, who were both selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Replacing the production lost from those three starters is of the utmost concern to O’Neill. It is a task he knows will be directly related to the success of this raw Trojan team.
Much of that expectation for offense production will fall on senior and lone returning starter guard Dwight Lewis — not only the Trojans’ go-to option on offense, but the de facto team leader.
“As [Lewis] goes, we’ll go. He has the experience, and I think he’ll be a leader,” O’Neill said. “When you’ve lost a recruiting class and three guys to the pros, you’re counting on your returners.”
Lewis doesn’t seem fazed by the expectation.
“I welcome the pressure,” he said.
Expected to replace Hackett at point guard will be redshirt junior Donte Smith. Smith will have some help from backups redshirt junior Ryan Wetherell and redshirt senior Mike Gerrity, although Gerrity will sit out until Christmas because of eligibility requirements.
Also among the new faces the Trojans will be relying on this year is redshirt junior transfer Alex Stepheson. After sitting out last season following his transfer from North Carolina, the power forward will be counted on to produce down low to replace some of the low post threat lost when two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Gibson left for the NBA.
Because of the year Stepheson missed when he transferred, the Southern California native hasn’t experienced regular season action since his days with the Tar Heels. Even then, Stepheson was only a factor off the bench for UNC.
“[Stepheson] is an NBA-type rebounder and has a great body, but he needs playing time,” O’Neill said. “He’s worked really hard this summer to develop his skills, and he competes hard.”
Stepheson will be joined in the frontcourt by three returning forwards: sophomore Leonard Washington, redshirt junior Kasey Cunningham and sophomore Nikola Vucevic.
Washington must also sit out until the second semester because of academic issues, but once he returns, the frontcourt could be the strongest part of this inexperienced Trojan team.
“We have some good players on our team that feel they have something to prove,” O’Neill said.
One of the players with the most to prove may be junior guard Marcus Simmons. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Simmons can play in a variety of sets and may be the Trojans’ most versatile player. How Simmons is used tonight may be a window into the third-year’s role going on into the regular season.
UC Riverside (0-1) presents the Trojans with an opportunity to even their record in home openers at the Galen Center, but the Highlanders will not be an easy first opponent for the Trojans.
UC Riverside features a balanced attack, that led the team to a 17-13 record last season in the Big West conference, and will also bring former Trojan forward Kyle Austin back to the Galen Center. Austin played for the Trojans during their run to the Sweet 16 in 2007 before transferring to Riverside.
Beyond tonight’s game, no one is giving the Trojans much of a chance to make it far this season. USC, last season’s Pac-10 Tournament champions, are being picked to finish ninth in the conference.
“I’m not sitting around and lamenting the players we have, we’ve got good players,” O’Neill said. “We don’t feel like a ninth-place team.”