USC’s nonconference schedule the right call

In every level of athletic competition, there is one core tenet coaches use when looking toward the future: To be the best, you have to beat the best.

The USC men’s basketball team turned a corner in that regard with wins over non-conference foes like Texas and Tennessee in 2010, though the challenge of taking that next step toward national recognition requires a steadfast commitment to continuing the trend.

Since Nikola Vucevic’s decision to forgo his senior season, many have said USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s 2011-12 squad will need to grow up in a hurry if it wants any chance of playing deep into March.

With the loss of Vucevic and graduating seniors Alex Stepheson, Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith, the Trojans will enter their second straight season without four of their top six scorers from the previous year.

Throw in the fact that next year’s replacements — transfers Aaron Fuller and DeWayne Dedmon and freshman recruit Bryon Wesley — have never played a single minute in cardinal and gold, and the prospects look bleak.

O’Neill’s rough month on (being out-coached by Shaka Smart) and off (altercation with University of Arizona booster) the court makes it even harder to see how the puzzle pieces will fit together.

Say what you will about the beleaguered coach and his mixed bag of players, but O’Neill might have just saved the season eight months before it even begins.


By scheduling tough early season games against Kansas, North Carolina and potentially Duke, all of which will occur outside the friendly confines of the Galen Center.

Playing non-conference games, whether they are in Kansas, Las Vegas or Durham, N.C., not only makes for a more battle-tested team come conference play, but it illustrates a willingness to compete against any team in the country, regardless of ranking or pedigree.

Take a look at the teams that played in Monday’s national championship game.

Aside from the fact it ended up being the worst title game in recent memory, both Butler and Connecticut remained unscathed through the first five rounds of the tournament in part because of their extremely tough non-conference schedules.

Among the ranked teams the two faced on their paths to the first Monday in April were Duke, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas.

For USC, scheduling games against three of the past four national champions lends credence to the idea the university is serious about its men’s basketball program, despite the common belief that the round ball plays second fiddle to the pigskin around these parts.

What non-conference game is more exciting to you, USC football vs. Syracuse or USC men’s basketball vs. UNC?

The trickle-down effect of a tough non-conference schedule can only be positive. Whether the team goes 2-1 or 0-3 against these elite opponents is almost of secondary importance.

And O’Neill’s plan goes much deeper, from pleasing the tournament committee on Selection Sunday if the team falls on the bubble to promoting USC on a national level and impressing recruits who might want to one day don a Trojan uniform.

The program, even as it tries to clean up its recently tarnished image, has received very little attention around the country, primarily because the team is never on national television. Outside of the play-in game against VCU and the ESPN circus that ensued after O’Neill’s one-game suspension, you’d be hard-pressed to find people on the East Coast who even know USC has a basketball team, let alone a promising one.

O’Neill has used his connections in the coaching community for the long-term betterment of the program.

I’m a fan of November and December victories against UC Riverside and Lehigh as much as the next person, but quality teams don’t mask their deficiencies with superfluous wins.

Instead, they use the non-conference period as a meaningful, tournament-style barometer to gauge how far they still need to go. And, it’s just the right kind of test cable networks find attractive come the holiday season.

That might mean a blowout loss to Coach K at Cameron Indoor or another gut-wrenching defeat to the Jayhawks, but looking at the big picture, it means a program cares as much about its future as its fans do.

Isn’t that all you can ever really ask for?


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