Draft defections give USC an edge in Pac-12

After the USC men’s basketball team was ousted in the First Four of the NCAA tournament, I thought there was a slight possibility it could lose junior forward Nikola Vucevic to the NBA after a stellar season. After all, who would blame him?

I’d probably get tired shouldering USC’s inconsistent offense and facing constant double teams every night, too.

So when the decision was made official at a press conference last month, I wasn’t completely surprised, and immediately started thinking about how our basketball team would look next year.

Losing Vucevic, along with forward Alex Stepheson, our only other big man who played this year, will definitely hurt, and losing guard Donte Smith and guard Marcus Simmons won’t help.

USC will lose its top scorer, its only two big men, its best shooter and its best defender.

That’s not exactly the recipe for success heading into next season.

But now that news of other players in the Pac-10 declaring for the NBA draft has spread, concerns about the aftermath of losing Vucevic, and the other three seniors don’t seem so bad after all.

Arizona forward Derrick Williams, Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, UCLA guards Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt and Washington State guard Klay Thompson have all put their names into June’s draft has alleviated my worries about how bad USC basketball will fare next season.

That’d be three of the top four scorers in the conference in Williams, Thomas and Thompson,  plus one of the most versatile players in the conference in Honeycutt and one of the best defenders in the conference in Lee.

With these players not returning, their teams take huge hits.

Even with these top-tier players leaving, Jon Wilner of the Mercury News believes USC will finish ninth out of 12 teams in the Pac-12 next season.

In no way do I believe USC will be that bad.

The talent lost in one year compares to when UCLA’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, Stanford’s Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez, Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless and USC’s O.J. Mayo were selected in the top half of the first round in 2008.

You just don’t replace big-time players like that overnight, and that leaves the Pac-12 conference wide open for the Trojans to take advantage.

I’m not saying USC won’t miss Vucevic, but with these players leaving, it certainly helps the Trojans’ chances next year.

Although USC loses more than half its team, it should be better because of it.

Rather than watching USC dump the ball to Vucevic in the post and watching him operate, we will probably see a well-rounded team, instead of a one-man offensive show.

Sophomore forward Curtis Washington, who played sparingly last season, figures to have a much bigger role. Sophomore forward Garret Jackson will also be relied upon as one of the few returners who actually played minutes in coach Kevin O’Neill’s short rotation last year.

I never quite figured out why Washington never really played last season, especially with Stepheson suffering from a bout of fumble-itis the entire year. Next year, Washington just needs to catch the ball about half the time and shoot better than about 40 percent at the free-throw line, and that shouldn’t be too difficult.

USC will also have forward Aaron Fuller, who was an All-Big Ten honorable mention at Iowa and redshirted last season. A set of Twin Towers in seven-footers DeWayne Dedmon and James Blasczyk will debut at the Galen Center next year as well.

Although USC’s frontcourt will be very inexperienced, the number of big bodies provides the team with a number of options to turn to, and it also solves one glaring problem USC struggled with last season: depth.

And if you’re wondering where the offense will come from, there is no need to worry.

O’Neill’s defensive philosophy gives USC the opportunity to be in almost every game. Sure, it might be ugly basketball at times, but I believe in the old addage that defense wins championships.

The Trojans’ prized recruit for next season is forward Byron Wesley. The swingman from Etiwanda High is one of the top wing-types on the west coast, according to ESPN.com.

With an influx of youth and talent coming in, next season doesn’t look so bad after all, and despite what people say, they will not finish in ninth place in the Pac-12 conference. Couple that with knowing that most of the elite players in the former Pac-10 are gone, and USC has reason to believe it can compete for a conference title.


“In the Zone” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article visit dailytrojan.com or email Trevor at trevor.wong@usc.edu.

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