Uncertain future for Trojans’ athletics

For all you underclassmen Trojans fans, a word from the wise: brace yourselves.

I know basketball season just ended and spring football practice is just beginning, but recent action in both sports are bad omens for next season.

Big void · The USC men’s basketball team will need to replace the production of senior forward Alex Stepheson, pictured here, next year. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

The most recent bad basketball news came over the weekend when junior forward Nikola Vucevic decided to skip his senior year and declare for the NBA draft. Great for the young man’s career, horrible for a Trojans basketball squad that barely squeaked into the NCAA tournament even with his help.

Vucevic’s 17.1 points per game led a USC offense that was otherwise inept. The Montenegro native’s early exit leaves the Trojans with no reliable scoring presence. USC ranked ninth in scoring offense in the Pac-10 this season and could struggle to score even more next season if you can each imagine such a thing.

USC also loses Marcus Simmons, the team’s best perimeter defender, Donte Smith, its best perimeter shooter and Alex Stepheson, its most imposing physical presence.

To recap: USC loses its leading scorer, its best defender, its best shooter and biggest body. You do the math.

True, there is some new talent coming in. USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s recruiting class features combo guard Alexis Moore, small forward Byron Wesley and 7-foot-1 center James Blasczyk. A lot of potential there, but there is also a lot to replace, especially for freshmen.

News from the football field is not any more encouraging. Spring football usually kicks off with a bang, but this year, it’s been more of a pop.

Maybe it’s the early morning start time, which the players — and certainly the media — are still adjusting to. Or maybe it’s the absence of about 20 players who are sidelined by injuries. Whatever it is, the energy level just isn’t quite where it needs to be.

A week of practice has revealed a glaring weakness that could make or break USC’s football season. The offensive line is a huge question mark at this point. Junior guard Khaled Holmes, who started all 13 games last season, is out with neck stingers and could miss the spring training entirely. Even worse, Holmes will likely make the switch to center, so he has less time to learn a spot he has never played.

Other than junior tackle Matt Kalil, the O-line will be relying on inexperienced returners, like senior Martin Coleman, redshirt freshman Giovanni DiPaolo, redshirt sophomore John Martinez and junior college transfers Jeremy Galten and David Garness. Point is, besides Holmes (if he’s healthy) and Kalil, there is basically no returning experience up front.

Throw in a few injuries in the wrong spots and the offensive line could be detrimental to the Trojans’ chances this season. It all starts with the big boys in the trenches.

Without protection, Matt Barkley won’t be able to get the ball to Robert Woods. Without dominant O-line play, there will be no holes for Marc Tyler or Dillon Baxter to run through.

If the Trojans can’t put up points, a lot of pressure will fall on USC’s defense to play mistake-free, which is a scary prospect for anyone who watched USC last season.

USC folks are going to expect coach Lane Kiffin to improve on his 8-5 record. They want to see the Trojans compete for the Pac-12 title and not get overpowered by Oregon and Stanford. Kiffin has his work cut out for him.

So does O’Neill, who will be entering what many have deemed a make-or-break third year. He had built up a lot of good will with the way he handled the post-O.J. Mayo/Tim Floyd era, then saw it evaporate after he got suspended during the Pac-10 tournament for getting into a verbal altercation at a bar.

The pressure is on both coaches and both programs. Whether looking at the hardwood to the gridiron, there are a lot more questions than answers. As it stands now, USC’s two biggest sports could be in trouble.

What to do? Hope for the best, but invest in USC’s women’s and men’s volleyball programs just in case.


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