Last season, senior forward Alex Stepheson struggled to stay on the floor.
He battled fitness issues, and picked up three or more fouls in 12 of the 28 games he appeared in.
When Stepheson sat on the bench last year, however, USC had the luxury of playing forward Leonard Washington for significant minutes.
This season, after Washington transferred to Wyoming, freshman forward Garrett Jackson is the only big man available to play major minutes off the bench.
USC coach Kevin O’Neill, knowing that he would not be able to afford to take Stepheson out of the game for long periods of time this season, encouraged him to get into better cardiovascular shape.
Stepheson spent the summer working with first-year strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
Stepheson did yoga once a week, in addition to bike sprints, track workouts, lifting and some basketball drills.
“[Stepheson] was outstanding,” Brown said. “He did not miss a sprint, did not miss any reps, did not miss anything. You cannot ask for anything more than that.”
As a result of his improved conditioning, Stepheson has reduced his personal fouls from 2.4 last season to 2.0 per game and has only been called for more than three fouls in game once.
He increased his field goal percentage from .475 to .556 and his minutes per game are up to 33.0 from 25.8.
“Shaun Brown has been the MVP with Alex game-in and game-out,” O’Neill said. “Alex worked his tail off all summer long.”
Stepheson is averaging 9.8 points and 8.9 rebounds and he has had seven double-doubles this season.
“Shawn really got after me about getting into shape and eating right,” Stepheson said. “It definitely has paid off.”
The Trojans (12-11, 4-6) will be counting on Stepheson to have a big game when they host Oregon State tonight at 8:00 p.m.
The Beavers (9-13, 4-7) have momentum after upsetting No. 19 Washington a week ago, while USC has lost five of its last seven games since beating UCLA at home Jan. 9.
The Trojans have not played since last Wednesday when they lost at UCLA.
USC lost 80-76 at Oregon State on Jan. 15, despite 26 points and 14 rebounds from junior forward Nikola Vucevic.
In that game, USC trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half before making a late run.
The Beavers are led by sophomore guard Jared Cunningham, who averages 13.9 points per game.
He torched the Trojans in the teams’ first competition, scoring a career-high 24 points.