Trojans host Irvine to begin regular season play

There are a lot of differences between last season’s USC men’s basketball squad and this year’s team, which opens its regular season on Saturday.

Back for more · In his second year with USC, coach Kevin O’Neill will guide a Trojan team that is once again eligible to play in the postseason. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

Sure, players have come and gone since last March, but likely the biggest change is the mindset of the team, which knows that it is eligible for postseason competition after last year’s self-imposed sanctions kept them out.

“Now we have a chance to play for something,” junior forward Nikola Vucevic said. “Last year, we were not really playing for anything, so it was not that fun to play. This year, we are a good team, and I think we can make the NCAA tournament. It will be a fun season when you can go on to compete against the best.”

When USC announced sanctions on Jan. 3 as a result of NCAA rules violations related to former Trojans guard O.J. Mayo, the team was on an eight-game winning streak, which included winning the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, upsetting then-No. 9 Tennessee by 22 points and sweeping the two Arizona schools to open Pac-10 competition.

After the sanctions were announced, USC lost its next two games, and five of its next seven.

“I remember having to tell these guys on a Sunday morning that we were not going to play in the postseason,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “For me, it was traumatic to have to tell them that, let alone for them to hear it. The empty feeling of knowing that you could not play in the conference tournament and that your season was done was really difficult for our players to deal with, and for me to deal with.”

Despite the sanctions, the Trojans played well at times last season. Highlights included beating UCLA twice by a combined 25 points, as well as twice defeating Washington, which ended up making the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. However, the Trojans struggled down the stretch, losing their final five games.

“We have an opportunity [this season],” O’Neill said. “I am proud of the job that the guys did last year, and hopefully it sets the tone for what we are going to do this year.”

The first game of the season is against UC Irvine. It would be easy to overlook the Anteaters (0-1), which lost in an exhibition game to Concordia, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, after trailing by as many as 22 points in the second half. The Anteaters also lost by 14 points at No. 13 Illinois on Monday.

Despite the final score, UC Irvine was impressive against Illinois. After trailing 42-18 at halftime, the Anteaters bested Illinois in scoring in the second half by 10 points behind guard Darren Moore’s 15 second-half points.

Forward Eric Wise returns for the Anteaters after averaging 16.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and three assists per game last season, leading the team in all three categories. He has been named All-Big West second team in both of his collegiate seasons. He recorded the seventh double-double of his career against Illinois, posting 11 points and 12 rebounds.

Tip-off against the Anteaters is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Galen Center.