Fate not fitting for departing seniors

When the USC men’s basketball team plays its final home game of the regular season Saturday against Oregon State, it will be the last time that three seniors take the floor at the Galen Center.

There will undoubtedly be a pleasant celebration to honor the contributions that the departing players made to the program during their time in Los Angeles. But if the school really wanted to pay tribute to the trio, it would dole out an apology.

These players — Mike Gerrity, Marcus Johnson and Dwight Lewis — essentially took the fall for someone else’s mistake. None of them will get a shot to play in the Pac-10 tournament or the NCAA tournament because of self-imposed sanctions stemming from the O.J. Mayo scandal.

That’s not to say that USC basketball didn’t need to be reprimanded. If the school found the program committed violations — even if it conveniently won’t specify exactly what those violations were — then the team surely deserves to pay for its transgressions. But with the limited reach of justice in college athletics, it’s unfortunate these three seniors had to pay when some of the guilty parties have skipped town.

And it’s hard to think of more innocent people than those who were actually affected.

The story of Gerrity’s unlikely path to USC seemed like it might have a fitting end with the possibility of a postseason run, but instead it will end abruptly when the Trojans close out their season next week against Arizona. Can someone at least refund him that semester’s worth of tuition he had to pay before he got his scholarship?

Johnson not only gave USC basketball some much-needed highlight moments in the last two seasons, but he also showed remarkable willpower. After initially declaring for the NBA draft and appearing to be the latest part of USC’s basketball exodus, Johnson stuck it out for his senior year and came back to a team in transition. But maybe it was all worth it if Johnson can parlay this year into a better shot at the NBA.

And Lewis might be the most well-versed of anyone in the ongoing drama that is USC basketball. The three-year starter has overseen some of the most prosperous — yet tumultuous — stretches in the program’s history. Through it all, he has played the role of good soldier despite having to deal with some animated personalities.

In all, the seniors have every right to be upset with the hand they were dealt. But to their credit, it wouldn’t be their style to complain about the circumstances.

“When the whole sanction thing came down, I said that the last thing we would do is talk about it,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said in his weekly conference call. “Our guys have been great in terms of how they’ve carried themselves throughout this.”

It feels odd to have a team that is so low on ego must suffer for the sins of its unpunished predecessors. And not having a shot to play in the conference tournament is a pretty big blow.

Last year’s unexpected tournament run was like a three-day party at the Staples Center. The Trojans suddenly looked rejuvenated and joyful, a stark difference from the team that ended the regular season so business-like.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Trojans would even be candidates for an NCAA tournament berth with their current record. Trying to determine how the season would have played out differently would be a fruitless task, and the team’s current record doesn’t ensure anything. But last year’s team looked dead in the water before it secured its space via automatic bid.

And it sure would have been fun to see what those three seniors could have done in their last stand.

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