Plain and simple, USC coach Kevin O’Neill has been one of the unluckiest coaches in college basketball over the past three years, since taking over at USC in June 2009.
After winning the Diamond Head Classic and the first two games of Pac-10 play during his first season at USC, O’Neill’s squad was slapped with self-imposed sanctions, in an effort by the university to make amends for the actions of men who were no longer associated with the athletic program.
Last season, he then had to replace four of the top-six players from his sanction-imposed team, and, although he did so in admirable fashion, the Trojans got utterly embarrassed by the eventual darling of the tournament, VCU, in the first round.
The cards were stacked against O’Neill when the 2011-2012 season began.
Gone was Nikola Vucevic, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago, defensive stoppers Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons and 3-point specialist Donte Smith.
To add insult to injury, no pun intended, the team lost its only dynamic scorer in guard Jio Fontan, when the senior transfer from Fordham tore his anterior cruciate ligament during a preseason game in Brazil this summer.
Throw in the fact that this year’s opening night starting lineup against Cal State Northridge featured two freshmen, guard Alexis Moore and guard Byron Wesley; one sophomore, guard Maurice Jones; and two transfers, redshirt junior forward Aaron Fuller and redshirt sophomore forward Dewayne Dedmon. O’Neill’s work was certainly cut out for him.
So much so that I believe wins and losses should not even factor into the equation when discussing if the long-time NBA and collegiate coach should keep his job after this forgettable season concludes.
It’s nothing against his ability to coach or the character and work ethic of his players. This year’s men’s basketball team was doomed to fall short from the start.
Compile that with the season-ending injuries sustained by Fuller and Dedmon over the past few weeks, and any expectations of success would be foolish, to say the least.
There are those who subscribe to the notion that a real man makes his own luck, and if that is true, you likely would prefer if O’Neill was not retained in a few months.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, however, has gone on record as recently as this past weekend stating that O’Neill unequivocally won’t be fired at the end of the year.
But I caution all critics, whether they’re fans or administrators, to not come to any sort of firm conclusion just yet.
The final nine games the Trojans play this season will be more telling about O’Neill’s future than the previous 22 they’ve stumbled through.
Granted, they have as many wins this season as they have players currently in street clothes, but the final act of the 2011-2012 season should reveal just what kind of leader and motivator O’Neill is.
Throw out the standings and even the team’s upcoming schedule. It could be Washington or UCLA or Duke or UNC, that part of it doesn’t really matter much. A 5-4 stretch or a 0-9 stretch to end the season still leaves the team well outside of even a tournament bubble.
What matters is whether or not this team of young bloods, walk-ons and overmatched players can do the little things well. As O’Neill has said throughout the year, every member of this team has been forced to do more than they’ve ever been asked to do on a basketball floor. Because of that, every night the rest of the way, they will be overmatched on the court.
Nonetheless, a coach worthy of keeping his job should get his team — regardless of the roster — to out-hustle the other team, to dive for loose balls, to set hard screens, to box out, to maintain good body language in spite of the deficit on a scoreboard.
A coach worthy of keeping his job reminds his team day in and day out that it is a privilege to wear and represent the cardinal and gold. And with that privilege comes the responsibility of wearing the name and school colors with a sense of pride.
During the team’s recent nine-game slide, the glaring deficiency wasn’t a void left by an injury or lack of talent; it was a general sense of apathy when times got tough.
I am not questioning the heart or desire of any member of USC’s basketball team. I firmly believe each of them, as competitors, has a strong passion for the game of basketball. But, even when losing becomes pervasive, as it has this season, that’s never an excuse to let up or give in.
The 2011-2012 season has handed the basketball program some of the roughest lemons across the country, but it wouldn’t hurt to see O’Neill’s squad try and make lemonade out of it over the final nine-game stretch.
There isn’t much to play for these days if you measure a season only by a win-loss record, but in many ways the Trojans are playing for everything, whether it’s for the name on the front of the jersey, pride or for their coach’s future.
To succeed in this task, O’Neill need not rely on luck. After all, inspiring his team to execute the intangibles comes only from what lies within.
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