As an outgoing senior, I’m often overcome by nostalgia these days. In the next two months, I will experience a bevy of “lasts” at USC — my last bike ride down Trousdale Parkway in the wholly unnecessary bike lanes, my last chicken-chipotle panini at Popovich Cafe and my last signature on a Monday 9 a.m. discussion-session attendance sheet.
Perhaps for this reason, senior days for USC sports teams have started to resonate with me deeply. Witnessing senior quarterback Matt Barkley walk down the Coliseum tunnel for the last time with his arm in a sling was indescribably saddening. I cringed after watching senior point guard Jio Fontan end his career at the Galen Center by fouling out with five minutes remaining in Saturday’s 57-56 victory over Arizona State.
These parting images of captains, who did their best to will their teams to victory before ultimately falling short of expectations, will stick with me.
In recognition of his players’ perseverance through lean times, USC men’s basketball interim head coach Bob Cantu fielded five seniors to start Saturday’s senior day game: guards Fontan and Tyler Sugiyama, forwards Aaron Fuller and Eric Wise and center James Blasczyk. What made this gesture somewhat perplexing, however, was that Cantu failed to find any playing time for his sixth senior, forward Renaldo Woolridge. In fact, Cantu’s decision to start Sugiyama, a walk-on, furthered magnified Woolridge’s absence from the game.
After the contest, Blasczyk spoke up for his teammate, venting his frustrations via Twitter: “Very disrespectful that my boy [Woolridge] didn’t get out into the game..no class.”
But the 7-footer from Friendswood, Texas, didn’t leave it that. When asked whether he’s considering USC for graduate school and requesting a medical hardship waiver that would grant him another year of eligibility, Blasczyk tweeted, “Depends on who the coach is. If it’s somebody I can respect and play for then absolutely.”
I think it’s safe to read between the lines here and surmise that Blasczyk doesn’t think highly of his new coach.
But with all due respect to Blasczyk, who played valiantly through a foot sprain last season when the roster was decimated by injury, this reeks of sour grapes from a player who hasn’t left the bench in five of the 12 games Cantu has coached.
Whichever way you slice it, such flagrant insubordination by a player is completely unacceptable. Though Cantu might have made an error in judgment by not finding any playing time for Woolridge — especially when the team led by 19 in the first half — that supposed slight didn’t warrant this type of public response when it could have been handled in-house.
Moreover, Division I men’s basketball is not T-ball; it’s a meritocracy where the best players must play. Woolridge has averaged one point per game on 25.9 percent shooting for the season. For his part, Blasczyk has averaged a mere 4.2 points per game in his 12 career starts at USC. At this juncture, neither player provides the Trojans with the best chance to win, and it’s hard to make an argument otherwise.
If you factor in USC’s emergence as a dark-horse team to pull off an upset or two at the Pac-12 tournament, then Blasczyk’s decision to stir the pot is a surprisingly selfish act from a player who has carved out his niche this season as a sparkplug off the bench who relentlessly battles for position down low and snares rebounds. Winner of six of its last eight games, the men’s basketball team is certifiably dangerous as it approaches the mid-March Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. After all of the travails, the last thing this team and fan base needs is a divided locker room.
Of course, Cantu could quite easily overlook Blasczyk’s defiance, recognizing that he only has to coach the disgruntled senior for a few more weeks and that it might be best not to inflame the situation. But if the interim coach truly wishes to remove the “interim” label from his title, Cantu must assert his command and reprimand Blasczyk. Cantu can’t let his players openly undermine his leadership and character.
Though Blasczyk’s basketball career at USC surely didn’t end as he had hoped, he must understand that these parting shots accomplish nothing. His time at USC might not have netted him professional prospects, but at least he will soon possess a great degree — one that did not cost him a cent.
To leave behind a legacy of which he can be proud, Blasczyk needs to apologize and do whatever he can to help USC continue its remarkable turnaround.
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