Trojans have nothing to be ashamed of


March is sneaky.

The other day, it crept up behind me more quietly than Elmer Fudd, tapped me on my opposite shoulder and then laughed as I looked the other way.

I couldn’t help but smile, as I was finally reunited with my good buddy.

We walked to class together and discussed many things. I caught a whiff of spring break as we ventured past the lovely ladies of McCarthy Quad, sunbathing so that they are tan by spring break. I felt the presence of baseball as we caught a glimpse of Dedeaux Field. We joked that March’s step-sister, February, was saved by the glass slipper of the Olympics.

But mostly we reminisced about the best times we’ve had in the past and the new memories we will create this year with the NCAA basketball tournament.

March couldn’t contain its excitement when discussing how basketball has become relevant again on Tommy Trojan’s campus. We relived one of the best games of the tournament last year: USC’s close loss to eventual runner-up Michigan State in the second round.

When I reminded March that USC won’t be in the tournament this year, it lowered its eyes and looked to the ground.

That’s when it hit me. Even though USC inflicted self-harm by banning itself from any postseason play this year, this current team has nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, when the Trojans walk off the court for the last time this season at around 1 p.m. Saturday in Tuscon, Ariz., they should hold their heads high.

This group of players — a collection of castoffs, transfers, role players and rappers — performed more admirably than anybody expected.

After losing its coach and top three core players over the summer, USC was written off as an easy win on almost every Pac-10 team’s calendar. The Trojans were projected to finish ninth in the Pac-10 and last in sympathy points.

It looked that way early, with an embarrassing home loss to Loyola Marymount and blowouts at the hands of Texas and Georgia Tech.

Then, something straight out a Disney movie happened. The Trojans started winning. Not just winning but smothering ranked opponents with their asphyxiating defense.

That eight-game win streak in December gave the team and the entire school hope for something that seemed impossible just a few weeks before.

It was all thanks to the basketball team’s own Trojan Horse. Hidden amid the USC roster was Mike Gerrity, a scrappy guard formerly of Pepperdine and Charlotte. He kept schooling the five-star recruits of Tennessee and Arizona and they kept following his every dribble.

Gerrity, a senior, led the Trojan Fever fans on that remarkable run. After the dismemberment of No. 9 Tennessee, the steady wins over St. Mary’s and No. 20 UNLV and the solid 2-0 start to Pac-10 play, it seemed as if the Trojans were bound to overcome the Mt. Vesuvius-sized odds and make the NCAA tournament.

Then Mt. Vesiuvius erupted.

Jan. 3, 2010 might go down as the saddest and darkest Sunday in USC basketball history. With one quick statement by Athletic Director Mike Garrett, the dreams of players who put in hours upon hours of conditioning, weight lifting, sprints and jump shots (well, maybe not so much the jump shots part — USC ranks 325th out of 334 Division-I teams in scoring offense) were cut apart as easily as a sharp knife slices through a tender rib eye.

“I hope I don’t ever have to do that again because when you break young people’s dreams and hearts that’s hard to do,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said the day after he had to inform his players of the sanctions.

USC lost its first game after the announcement — a one-point loss to Stanford. Nobody would have blamed them if they went on to lose the rest of their games and finish 10th in the Pac-10. If they couldn’t be in the tournament, what was the point of playing anymore?

It turns out, even though wins and losses technically didn’t matter, the players still found that they could enjoy themselves on the court. They beat the Pac-10 leader, Cal, and the team many predicted to join the Golden Bears in the tournament, Washington.

“To play against a team that knows they’re playing for nothing and can’t go to a tournament, they’re just out there having fun,” Washington junior guard Venoy Overton said after USC beat the Huskies in January.

Then there was something that O.J. Mayo, DeMar DeRozan and Tim Floyd never did — sweep UCLA.

As it sits now, USC is fourth in the Pac-10 and could finish as high as second if it wins out this weekend. The Trojans have been getting respect nationally for their defense as they rank third in the country in scoring defense.

With these numbers, some people might feel USC deserves to go to the Big Dance. Because of past events, that won’t happen, but it’s not because of a lack of effort, heart and desire shown by the current team.

“Spittin’ Sports” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at klegan23@gmail.com.