O’Neill continues the rebuilding process

Kevin O’Neill doesn’t know when or how the NCAA will conclude its ongoing investigation of the USC athletic program. But the USC basketball coach knows that his opposition is using the window of uncertainty against him.

After hitting the summer recruiting trail, O’Neill said several prospects told him that opposing coaching staffs had negatively recruited against USC by bringing up the investigation. Many even speculated about an eventual punishment for the program.

Foundation · Coach Kevin O’Neill said he had to solidify this year’s roster first, which includes the leading returner scorer Dwight Lewis. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

Foundation · Coach Kevin O’Neill said he had to solidify this year’s roster first, which includes the leading returner scorer Dwight Lewis. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

“[Coaches] are saying we’re going to get everything from a hanging and lynching at noon to receiving the death penalty,” O’Neill said, referring to the NCAA’s harshest form of punishment. In the past 25 years, the Southern Methodist football program is the only Division-1 athletic team to receive the death penalty, which can entail shutting down a program for as many as two years.

O’Neill was unable to provide recruits with updates on the ongoing investigation, but said that he told them it was the only real roadblock the program was facing, a key reason he decided to take the job in the first place.

“I don’t know what went on before I got here. I’m just concentrating on what happens from here on out,” O’Neill said. “You have a great athletic tradition here, and with the facilities, location and the league, it’s one of those jobs where I think you can compete for a national title.”

Whether recruits would respond to O’Neill’s message of moving forward still “remains to be seen,” according to the coach, but his hard work has already proved fruitful.

The first-year coach reeled in two commitments over the summer after taking in a one-man recruiting class this year. Curtis Washington, a center from Kentucky, has verbally committed to USC as a rising high school senior, and Gelaun Wheelwright has pledged to join the Trojans in 2011.

While making sure his next recruiting classes are well-stocked was important to O’Neill, preventing player defections after the coaching transition was his most important task. The mission took him across the country and even overseas to meet with players’ families.

“We had to stabilize our roster and get this year’s team straight,” O’Neill said. “The blueprint is to concentrate on skill development with the guys who are here.”

All of the returning players who had not elected to enter the NBA draft decided to stay on board, including forward Marcus Johnson. Despite being granted another year of eligibility, the senior had flirted with the idea of playing professionally before eventually deciding to stay at USC.

But the team will still have to find a way to stir the interest of the public, which was apathetic for long stretches of last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Attendance at the Galen Center dwindled as the regular season drew to a close, and O’Neill believes there’s only one way to improve it.

“You just have to win. That’s the way it is in a pro city,” O’Neill said. “If you win, people come out.”

USC’s schedule, however, may prove humbling for the team in the early going. The Trojans must travel to Texas and play host to Tennessee; both teams are expected to be ranked in the top 10 when preseason polls are released. A rematch in Atlanta with Georgia Tech, which is expected to be greatly improved as it welcomes freshman phenom Derrick Favors to an already talented team, is also on the schedule.

The schedule was likely devised when the team believed it would have fewer NBA defections and more incoming recruits, O’Neill said, but the team has to press forward.

“They’re still going to be tipping it up on those days no matter what,” O’Neill said.

Despite all of the challenges he faces in his first year, O’Neill received a vote of confidence from a friend and former colleague.

“He’ll do really well there at USC and make the Pac-10 that much tougher,” said Josh Pastner, who served as an assistant coach to O’Neill at Arizona in 2007 and is now the head coach at Memphis. “Everyone’s saying they’re down, but I think they have some good talent coming back. With Kevin coaching, they’re going to be in every game and have a chance to win every time.”