Few athletic programs earn dual acclaim for their football and men’s basketball teams. To wit, Florida, Ohio State, Texas and Notre Dame are the only universities that really qualify. Without question, USC’s path to improving its basketball program and joining their ranks is littered with obstacles — some endemic, most brought on by poor management and the aftershocks of self-imposed sanctions levied in January 2010.
One thing is certain, though: If you want to build a sustainable basketball culture at USC, don’t follow USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s blueprint. Of USC men’s basketball’s 13 scholarship players this season, 10 began their NCAA careers elsewhere, thus prompting the 2012-13 squad’s nickname, “The Second-Chance Kids.”
O’Neill openly embraces the moniker, recently referring to his roster — himself included — as a collection of “rejects.”
But here’s the question: Is this new cast-of-rejects angle attractive to the rest of the USC student body?
Many probably assume so, given our inherent gravitation to the underdog narrative. After all, we’ve all chanted “Rudy!” at one point in our lives.
But color me skeptical that Trojans will readily embrace this team.
I want to like this USC men’s basketball team; honestly, I do. The swanky Galen Center deserves a better brand of basketball.
But even if this team wins with regularity and flirts with an NCAA tournament bid this season — a strong possibility — USC men’s basketball needs to change its DNA in order to win over its fan base.
Beyond their miserable record, the Trojans were unbearable to watch in 2011-12 because their roster didn’t teem with likable, magnetic personalities and the offense was unimaginative at its best and putrid at its worst.
USC football isn’t marketable just because of its winning tradition; it’s marketable because of affable headliners like senior quarterback Matt Barkley, sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee and junior cornerback Nickell “Real Deal” Robey. Not only do these players burst with talent, but they also beam Hollywood smiles and face scrutiny with poise.
USC basketball didn’t feature those types of personalities last season, especially after guard Jio Fontan, the face of the program, tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
The recently-departed Maurice Jones, who assumed Fontan’s captaincy, operated with a permanent scowl and often barked at his teammates in disgust. Those antics aren’t endearing when you’re Kobe Bryant, but even less so when you finish the season shooting 33.6 percent from the field like Jones did.
Junior center Dewayne Dedmon — the frontcourt’s centerpiece — bursts with NBA lottery potential, but frustrated last season with low basketball IQ, especially when he proudly pumped his chest after each hard foul he committed. Dedmon’s tenacity and length evoke images of a raw Kevin Garnett, but his lack of basketball experience leads to mistakes fans wouldn’t even make in their pick-up games at the Lyon Center.
As for USC’s lowly offense that averaged 52.6 points per game in 2011-12, to be fair, I won’t judge the Trojans after then-junior forward Aaron Fuller and Dedmon suffered season-ending injuries within two games of each other. With two walk-ons in a seven-man rotation by the end of the season, the “offense” necessarily consisted of Jones running around for 35 seconds before heaving a desperation attempt.
But even before the devastating injuries, USC didn’t run the floor and play an up-tempo game. It often appeared as if USC sought to milk the shot clock just to limit possessions, keep the game close and give itself a chance to pull out a late victory. As Trojan football fans know, tentative playcalling irritates your fan base. Moreover, it doesn’t attract future recruits who want highlight reel dunks.
O’Neill’s new glut of transfers figures to at last provide offense, but it’s still unclear whether they’ll improve the team’s likability among students and fans.
The problem with O’Neill’s revolving door of transfers and hired guns is that many of the players brought in to stabilize the program have already not worked out at their previous schools for one reason or another. He’s taking the leap of faith that they will all buy in and not become frustrated if the minutes and shot opportunities they expected to receive never come.
Former Wake Forest guard J.T. Terrell, who averaged 24.4 points per game at Peninsula Junior College in Port Angeles, Wash., will likely lead the Trojans in scoring this season. The deadly shooter comes with baggage, however, as he left the Demon Deacons after pleading guilty to a DWI charge in 2011.
Last February, junior forward Ari Stewart, another Wake Forest transfer who was sitting out the season per NCAA transfer rules, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Maricopa County, Ariz. on a weekend when USC was playing at both Arizona and Arizona State.
Needless to say, these are not violent crimes and young adults make mistakes, but these two explosive players will make their USC debuts Friday night at the Galen Center toting checkered pasts.
Still, for the first time in his tenure with USC, O’Neill expects to use an eight- or nine-player rotation where the drop-off between starters and reserves won’t be too severe. After a cringe-inducing season featuring a historically inept offense playing at a slower-than-molasses pace, we’re promised something better this season.
But only time will tell if USC fans will rally around and embrace “The Second-Chance Kids.”
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