When the USC men’s basketball team took on UCLA in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament last March, USC coach Kevin O’Neill had one player taller than 6-foot-6 at his disposal — center James Blasczyk.
As the last remaining big man on the roster, the already-hobbled junior logged only 12 minutes of playing time in a 55-40 defeat. The Trojans’ season came to a merciful ending without the two frontcourt players that had started the year, as forward Aaron Fuller and center Dewayne Dedmon both went down to major injuries at different points during USC’s 6-26 campaign.
What a difference a few months make.
USC enters the 2012-13 season with a healthy, deep frontcourt. O’Neill, the Trojans’ fourth-year coach, has yet to weigh in on who will fill the forward and center spots, but junior big man Dedmon figures to be in position for a fair amount of playing time after averaging 23 minutes per game last year.
Dedmon worked on becoming a more complete player in the offseason and will be counted on as an important defender and rebounder for the Trojans.
“I just worked on my all-around game,” Dedmon said. “Also just keeping up the high intensity and pace. Rebounding was a big thing I wanted to focus on.”
Blasczyk, a senior center, will also be returning for the Trojans and should see time as a role player who could give the Trojans extra depth in the paint.
“Knock on wood, I’m completely healthy for the first time in five years,” Blasczyk said. “I bring energy and I play hard. I do the things that nobody else likes to do.”
Perhaps the biggest X-factor in the frontcourt stands 7-foot-2 in junior center Omar Oraby, who recently transferred from Rice. The Trojans have yet to hear from the NCAA as to whether or not the big man will be eligible for the start of the season after he applied for a hardship waiver to play immediately.
But if he is allowed to suit up, USC will have three legitimate seven-footers on the roster.
“It helps our defense because when you’ve got that much length in a college game down low, it’s hard to score on us,” O’Neill said. “We’re a trap-the-box team, so when guys trap the box with a seven-foot length versus a six- foot-seven [length], there’s a big difference.”
Oraby broke Rice’s blocks record with 54 in just 11.6 minutes per game, but has been impressing teammates in practice for more than just his defensive abilities.
“Omar at 7-foot-2 has been able to do a lot of things that I don’t think we were expecting, especially this soon,” senior point guard Jio Fontan said.
Meanwhile, senior forward Aaron Fuller returns from a torn labrum after putting up 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in 2011-12.
He led the team in the latter department last year and figures to get plenty of action at the power forward spot.
“I used the summer time to get back basketball-wise, a lot of rehab and stuff,” Fuller said. “I was cleared in August so since then it’s been getting better each and every day. It’ll get a lot better as the year goes on.”
Strahinja Gavrilovic, a 6-foot-9 freshman who O’Neill has affectionately nicknamed “Luis” for short, gives USC another big body off the bench.
“When one of us gets tired, we have a bunch of guys that can come off the bench,” Fuller said. “From the first guy to the last guy, we can all contribute.”
USC also boasts a trio of versatile forwards each standing at least 6-foot-6 that can stuff the stat sheet on any given night. Renaldo Woolridge, a senior transfer from Tennessee, stands at 6-foot-9 but specializes in shooting beyond the arc — he scored 17 points, including five 3-pointers, against Anthony Davis and the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats last season.
“My biggest [skill] is probably my three-point shooting and my experience, having played for four years,” Woolridge said.
Junior forward Ari Stewart, a transfer from Wake Forest following his freshman year, is also set to jump into the fray after having to sit out last season. He averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds as a sophomore.
“Ari Stewart’s an athlete who can guard … two through four,” Fontan said. “And he’s a dead spot shooter, so he’s going to be able to stretch the floor for us.”
Another transfer, senior Eric Wise from UC Irvine, brings a unique skill set as a 6-foot-6 forward who can create for his teammates.
Wise averaged 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in 20 games for the Anteaters during the 2010-11 season.
“Eric Wise is probably the most versatile guy on our team, so he stands out,” Fontan said. “He’s probably the best playmaker on our team other than myself and JT [Terrell].”
How O’Neill chooses to utilize his new group of forwards and centers remains up in the air, but he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.
“I really like our frontline,” O’Neill said. “We’ve got a lot of options. We’ve got veteran players, we’ve got hard playing guys. If you throw Omar into that group, you’re talking about a really, really good frontline.”