O’Neill deserves third year despite questions

With time winding down in the USC men’s basketball team’s last home game last month, junior forward Nikola Vucevic stepped to the line to take two free throws.

As he prepared to shoot, a faint “one more year” chant could be heard coming from the student section.

This continued as the game reached its final seconds, and while the chant was intended for Vucevic, it could have easily applied to another man on the USC bench: coach Kevin O’Neill.

After USC exited the NCAA tournament as quickly as it entered, questions about O’Neill’s job status hit the Internet. USC has been mediocre during O’Neill’s two years at the helm and there are few signs the program is rapidly improving.

O’Neill did exceed expectations by getting into the tournament this year, but his team’s inconsistent play remains a concern.

Yet, with that in mind, O’Neill deserves one more year to show significant improvement in the basketball program.

O’Neill is the coaching equivalent of a journeyman. He has been to a lot of places, never failing, but never enjoying great success either. He has been to the tournament a couple of times, but never made a huge dent.

Based on past experiences, it’s reasonable to assume O’Neill is not going to turn USC basketball into an annual Pac-10 contender.

Since he’s only been here two years, however, it would be unfair of USC to fire him this summer. He hasn’t fully had a chance to make his mark on the sanction-plagued program, thanks to former coach Tim Floyd.

He also hasn’t had a chance to bring in a lot of recruits, which is important when establishing if a coach is succeeding in a particular environment.

O’Neill has two recruits above an 89 rating, according to ESPN.com, coming in next year, as well as 2009-10 Big Ten Honorable Mention forward Aaron Fuller and center James Blasczyk, a former Texas A&M player and one-time top-50 high school recruit in Texas

It’s not the class John Calipari gets every year at Kentucky, but it’s a solid ragtag group of players, who could come together to help USC to the next level.

But we won’t know until next year, when O’Neill gets the chance to implement his system with the guys he recruited.

If significant improvement — and by that I mean more consistent play, not losing to teams nobody has ever heard of, and becoming a lock for the NCAA tournament — isn’t made, it would be right for Haden to look elsewhere for someone who can lead USC basketball into the elite of the Pac-12.

Now before you snap and say USC basketball will never be Pac-12 elite material or USC basketball isn’t important, consider this: Not only is the Galen Center, built just five years ago, begging for a headlining act, but the entire Pac-12 is begging for someone to step up and be the face of the conference.

Five different teams have won the conference title in the last five years.

If O’Neill can’t get the program on the rise next year, the only way for Pat Haden to fix that is to hire a big name coach and it just so happens there will likely be one on the market next year.

Yup, I’m talking about former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.

Despite all the sanctions, I think most would agree Pearl would be a great fit for the Trojan program. He’s young, colorful and a great marketer. He’s also a big name recruits can gravitate to.

He does have a lot of baggage, however, which is why it would be unwise for USC to even think about him now.

If Haden even hinted he were thinking about Pearl, that would not only send the wrong message to the NCAA Committee of Infractions but would also contradict the delicate reputation Haden has built for the USC athletics program in the past nine months.

Yes, Pearl lied to the NCAA, which is obviously a big no-no. And no, that wasn’t his only offense. Yet, I believe he is truly remorseful and deserves a second chance. And there is no place he would be under a sharper watch than at USC.

I’m aware the Committee on Infractions can give him a two-year show-cause penalty, meaning any place that hires him needs to get approval from the committee first, but Tennessee dismissed Pearl more for its overall athletic reputation than the health of its basketball program.

Barring any extensive penalties handed down to Pearl by the NCAA this summer, if O’Neill can’t show he’s bringing the program to another level after this season, Haden would be wrong to discount Pearl as a replacement once the talk and feelings about his illicit activity die down. But O’Neill definitely deserves this next year to prove his worth.


“Spittin’ Sports” runs Fridays. To comment on this article email Kenny at klegan@usc.edu or visit dailytrojan.com.

2 replies
  1. Steve B.
    Steve B. says:

    The real troublemaker was Mike Garrett who pushed hard for O.J. Mayo to help fill the arena. He is the one who knew about Rodney Guillory and all his baggage from the days of Jeff Trep. Floyd would have done well for the Trojans with adding Williams and Jones to the team last year. Brad Stevens would be ideal just signed a very long term extension with Butler a few weeks ago. It is time for a Jewish coach Pearl since every other religion has been represented on the court over the years by the coaching staff.

  2. Weiguo Zhu, MD
    Weiguo Zhu, MD says:

    I think USC should let KO go. He never proved that he is a winer. Arizona was smart to kick him out 3 years ago. Look at Arizona now, can you imaging if KO stayed there. Don’t forget Sean Miller has been with Arizona for only 2 years. Trojans need look for some young guys like Brad Stevens instead of trouble makers, like Tim Floyd, KO or Bruce Pearl. Go trojans!

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