Volleyball lessons for men’s basketball

The USC men’s basketball team is struggling. The USC men’s volleyball team is not.

Yes, the top-ranked men’s volleyball team lost its first game of what was a perfect season over the weekend, a five-set heartbreaker to Pepperdine. But the mild setback didn’t shake the college volleyball world.

The Trojans are still the No. 1 team in the land.

The USC men’s basketball team had an equally disappointing and even more costly weekend. USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s boys split two home games, sputtering out badly Saturday in an ugly loss to Oregon. The Trojans were already a long shot to make the Big Dance. Now, they’d be lucky to make the National Invitational Tournament.

When you look at the two programs, it’s like looking at two houses in disparate conditions. One, nearly pristine, has been meticulously improved year after year and is the envy of the neighborhood.

The other house was bought after a foreclosure. Although it’s not rundown, the roof is leaking. And as soon as you plug one hole, another keeps popping up.

I don’t think I have to tell you which house represents which program.

The two teams are on different tracks. The volleyball team is headed straight to the top, national championship or bust. The basketball team is just trying to move in a positive direction, to finish out an up-and-down season on a high note.

Volleyball and basketball aren’t so different after all. Both are games made up of runs. Both rely on a certain rhythm and flow. Spacing is crucial, teamwork essential. Point is, a lesson from one is easily transferable to the other.

So what cues can the men’s basketball team take from the success of senior opposite hitter Murphy Troy and the men’s volleyball team? If there’s one word, it’s consistency.

I was the volleyball beat writer two years ago. After moving on to other sports, I popped my head into volleyball practice last week, and it was as if I were in a time warp.

Very little had changed. The atmosphere was more intense, but the faces were practically the same.

Troy is still the power hitter on the outside. Senior setter Riley McKibbin still quarterbacks the offense. Senior middle blocker Austin Zahn is still a presence at the net. Senior outside Tri Bourne is still making teams pay when they forget about him on the other side.

Those four seniors form the core of the team that has been steadily building since 2007. They were USC coach Bill Ferguson’s golden recruiting class and they are living up to expectations. They came in together as freshmen and the only direction to go was up. They were a few points away from winning the national title in 2009 and still have one last crack at it.

Compare that with O’Neill’s basketball squad. A very capable coach, O’Neill came in two years ago after Tim Floyd’s abrupt resignation and an exodus of recruits that would have impressed Moses. The program was nearing disarray, and O’Neill helped to stabilize it.

But consistency continues to elude the Trojans on the basketball court. They have nothing that approaches the consistency of the volleyball team.

Junior forward Nikola Vucevic is really the only player remaining who had any impact in the Tim Floyd days. Senior forward Alex Stepheson had to sit out that year because he transferred in and senior guard Donte Smith had not discovered his jump shot yet.

Meanwhile, new players like freshmen guard Maurice Jones and forward Garrett Jackson were thrown into the mix early and are still struggling to find their way.

So the basketball team takes two steps backward as soon as it takes one step forward, while the volleyball team steadily climbs.

Players on both teams work equally hard. Both coaching staffs are just as dedicated. But Ferguson’s starters are four seniors and two juniors, all of whom have been at USC their entire college careers, learning the offense, buying into the system.

Meanwhile, O’Neill must go with what he has, which is a group of guys who, with the exception of a few, haven’t logged a whole lot of games together.

Any rebuilding program struggles with these issues. This is part of the process. Progress is often slow. Fans get impatient and players get frustrated.

The only way to have lasting success is to stay the course. It is a valuable lesson the basketball team would be wise to heed.

“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at jjovanel@usc.edu.