As the soldout crowd at the Galen Center chanted down the final seconds to USC’s fourth straight win over UCLA on Sunday, Trojan players, students and fans alike all reveled in the fact that they have owned their bitter crosstown rivals for the last two years.
But something was lost amid that celebration. Something bigger than beating a mediocre UCLA team.
And then it dawned on me. This wasn’t just a win over the Bruins for USC. This was a statement to the entire Pac-10 conference. This was the USC basketball team’s way of saying brand name doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Sure, in the grand scheme of things UCLA basketball’s brand will always eclipse that of USC basketball, but not as much in the last two years. With the demise of UCLA, and the entire Pac-10 for that matter, this is the perfect opportunity that only comes around once in a generation, like a really rainy L.A. December, for USC basketball to assert itself, not only in Los Angeles, but on the West Coast.
The typically strong Pac-10 is suffering through a few down years. Currently, it only has one ranked team, and barely at that, and the conference is just begging for someone to take it by the leash and lead it. With a blowout win against No. 14 Texas — whose only other two losses have come against top 10 foes — as well as a quality win on the road at Tennessee and a heartbreaking two point loss at No. 3 Kansas, USC has shown it has the ability to be that team. The only thing holding it back is the terrible losses to teams nobody knew existed (I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought when the Trojans were playing Rider, they were playing former NBA player Isaiah Rider and not a school).
In fact, the Pac-10 has performed so poorly that a team from the Mountain West Conference is the best team on the West Coast. No disrespect to San Diego State, but its basketball accolades are lacking.
Knowing that no school is dramatically outshining any others the way UCLA did for ages, this is the perfect chance for USC go out on the recruiting trail and bring in top notch players who even as little as five years ago probably didn’t know USC had a basketball team. USC coach Kevin O’Neill is already beginning to do that, signing small forward Byron Wesley, who rates 90 out of 100 points on ESPN’s recruiting scale, and point guard Alexis Moore, who rates 88 points. Both these players, as well as Aaron Fuller, a junior transfer from Iowa and winner of the All-Big Ten honorable mention last year, will look to steady a program that has been widely inconsistent in the last
Nobody expected USC, who was predicted to finish sixth in the Pac-10 this year in the preseason media poll, to rebound from its self-imposed sanctions this quickly. This time last year, the basketball team was learning it couldn’t partake in any postseason tournament and an eight-game winning streak quickly turned south. There’s no doubt that a typically strong Pac-10 conference would’ve swallowed USC and prevented it from making much progress in the near future.
But O’Neill has done a great job with the pieces he’s been given. He’s got a transfer who’s given this team the go-to perimeter scorer it was lacking and a big man who I’m convinced is not among the nation’s premier players because announcers are scared of pronouncing his name.
So not only is this a great chance for USC to cement itself in the upper tier of Pac-10 basketball, but an opportunity to shed all the negative publicity on the program as well. There’s no doubt O.J. Mayo was a big reason for the team’s success three years ago, and USC violated rules to bring him here. Did the same happen with the next year’s sensation, DeMar DeRozan? There’s no evidence to say that but he might not have ever chosen USC had Mayo not played with the Trojans and brought them to the spotlight.
Even though USC has been to the tournament and even been ranked within the last few years, it was under a cloud of illegality. The Trojans are winning again, and have a great opportunity to continue to do so under clean conditions. O’Neill is running a squeaky clean program, and if USC can prove it can consistently win without violating rules, then there’s a strong chance it could contend for a Pac-10 title every year in the near future.
This might sound too optimistic and rah-rah to some people, and that’s understandable. The Trojans haven’t really proven anything yet and it is still early in the Pac-10 slate. But the opportunity is there and probably won’t be again until Halley’s Comet appears in the night sky — in 2061. To the Mayans, though, that will be too late.
“Spittin’ Sports” runs Fridays. To comment on this article email Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.