It has been a rough year for the USC men’s basketball team.
Yes, you probably know this by now.
But when one considers the magnitude of the seemingly never-ending pile-up of sanctions, ineligibilities, injuries, and coaching and staff changes — not to mention the pending NCAA investigation that has loomed over the program for a year now — the phrase bears repeating, maybe even a couple times over.
At a time of major transition for the program, the team faces obstacles large enough to ruin a team’s chances of success for the next decade. Playing without a big name recruit (all of those disappeared before former coach Tim Floyd’s dust cloud settled), without a returning group of experienced players (or a coach, for that matter) and without any possibility of participating in the postseason, it is safe to say that the odds are against the Trojans in just about every way imaginable.
At this point, all of this news has just about become common knowledge to USC fans, which might explain why the average attendance at games has dwindled to below 5,000. Some may attribute this low turnout to one thing or another in specific, but it is safe to say that the myriad problems the team has had in the past year encapsulate most fans for apathy.
Yet in the wake of scandal and upheaval, there is a silver — or more appropriately, gold — lining to be found in this situation, one that has rarely shown itself in the past: a strong, bustling student section.
Against all reason, the problems facing the basketball team have seemed to bring out the best in our students, who as of late have continued to fill seats and support the basketball team despite waning attendance in the rest of the stadium. While it still has a long way to go before being linked with the likes of the “Cameron Crazies” at Duke or the “Izzone” at Michigan State, it’s apparent that strides are being made and students are once again providing the energy level needed to give the home team an added boost.
One could argue that it all began with the creation of the Trojan Fever Fanatics, a 20-or-so member group of “super fans” that sit in the first couple of rows in the student section and lead cheers. They have worked with coach Kevin O’Neill and others to bring incentive and excitement to games and are slowly but surely are becoming a familiar group throughout campus.
Others may point to the team’s history as a reason for student involvement, as the Trojans have garnered national attention in each of the last four seasons because of their postseason success and participation in the NCAA tournament, which included a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007. The success of the team alone in the recent past undoubtedly has captured the interest of numerous students.
But while these may be contributing factors, I see a third, much more intangible reason as the catalyst for the steady turnout: more than ever before, the students feel a connection with the players.
Let me explain.
Not in recent memory, and maybe not ever, has the team gone through such a sweeping change as what occurred last summer when Floyd and his recruits scattered and three players declared for the NBA draft. Going into this season, only one starter remained — senior guard Dwight Lewis — and the team seemed more concerned with just finding five starters to play than actually winning ball games.
But with the addition of transfers senior guard Mike Gerrity and redshirt junior foward Alex Stepheson, as well as the astounding progression and growth of sophomore foward Nikola Vucevic, forward senior Marcus Johnson and junior guard Marcus Simmons, the Trojans were suddenly a team of scrappy underdogs set on exceeding the minimal expectations set for them (USC was projected by Yahoo! to finish ninth in the Pac-10).
This team is a far cry from those seen in previous years, which were headlined by one-and-done players like DeMar DeRozan and O.J. Mayo. This team does not have national hype, years of experience, and the luxury of a veteran coach or a strong recruiting class to rely on, not to mention the privilege of playing in the postseason. They are not superstars or players whom you have heard of since they were in ninth grade.
But what they do have is the drive to compete under even the most unfair of circumstances; when most teams would roll over and look to next season, this Trojans team has gone 16-9 — a record that includes wins over Tennessee, UNLV and St. Mary’s out of conference — and suddenly finds itself a game and a half out of first place in the Pac-10.
And it is in this fierce and competitive spirit that the students have, in my opinion, bought into.
Sure, it’s easy to pack the student section when O.J. Mayo is taking the ball across court every possession. But to do it with a team of underdogs who can’t even play in the postseason is both a testament to the team’s love for the game and the students’ appreciation for unconditional school spirit and a never-say-die attitude.
So despite the unavoidable March 6 end to the Trojans’ year of basketball, the season will remain memorable — not because of the missed opportunities but rather because of what was accomplished in their wake.
“One-Two Punch” runs every other Friday. To comment on this article visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail James at email@example.com.