Trojans get a big growth spurt in the frontcourt
When the USC men‚Äôs basketball team took on UCLA in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament last March, USC coach Kevin O‚ÄôNeill had one player taller than 6-foot-6 at his disposal ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äô 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‚Äôs 6-26 campaign.
What a difference a few months make.
USC enters the 2012-13 season with a healthy, deep frontcourt. O‚ÄôNeill, the Trojans‚Äô 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.
‚ÄúI just worked on my all-around game,‚ÄĚ Dedmon said. ‚ÄúAlso just keeping up the high intensity and pace. Rebounding was a big thing I wanted to focus on.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúKnock on wood, I‚Äôm completely healthy for the first time in five years,‚ÄĚ Blasczyk said. ‚ÄúI bring energy and I play hard. I do the things that nobody else likes to do.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúIt helps our defense because when you‚Äôve got that much length in a college game down low, it‚Äôs hard to score on us,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre a trap-the-box team, so when guys trap the box with a seven-foot length versus a six- foot-seven [length], there‚Äôs a big difference.‚ÄĚ
Oraby broke Rice‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúOmar at 7-foot-2 has been able to do a lot of things that I don‚Äôt think we were expecting, especially this soon,‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúI used the summer time to get back basketball-wise, a lot of rehab and stuff,‚ÄĚ Fuller said. ‚ÄúI was cleared in August so since then it‚Äôs been getting better each and every day. It‚Äôll get a lot better as the year goes on.‚ÄĚ
Strahinja Gavrilovic, a 6-foot-9 freshman who O‚ÄôNeill has affectionately nicknamed ‚ÄúLuis‚ÄĚ for short, gives USC another big body off the bench.
‚ÄúWhen one of us gets tired, we have a bunch of guys that can come off the bench,‚ÄĚ Fuller said. ‚ÄúFrom the first guy to the last guy, we can all contribute.‚ÄĚ
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 ‚ÄĒ he scored 17 points, including five 3-pointers, against Anthony Davis and the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats last season.
‚ÄúMy biggest [skill] is probably my three-point shooting and my experience, having played for four years,‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúAri Stewart‚Äôs an athlete who can guard ‚Ä¶ two through four,‚ÄĚ Fontan said. ‚ÄúAnd he‚Äôs a dead spot shooter, so he‚Äôs going to be able to stretch the floor for us.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúEric Wise is probably the most versatile guy on our team, so he stands out,‚ÄĚ Fontan said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs probably the best playmaker on our team other than myself and JT [Terrell].‚ÄĚ
How O‚ÄôNeill chooses to utilize his new group of forwards and centers remains up in the air, but he‚Äôs encouraged by what he‚Äôs seen so far.
‚ÄúI really like our frontline,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got a lot of options. We‚Äôve got veteran players, we‚Äôve got hard playing guys. If you throw Omar into that group, you‚Äôre talking about a really, really good frontline.‚ÄĚ