Tough schedule to benefit Trojans

In typical Trojan fashion, the USC men’s basketball team begins its season Friday against CSU Northridge with little to no fanfare.

You can thank the Trojans’ No. 18 football team for most of the distraction, as its 7-2 record and recent play have captured the attention of many more people than those residing between Adams and Exposition Boulevards.

The unexpected season-ending injury to star senior guard Jio Fontan earlier this year certainly doesn’t help either, as USC now stands without its key playmaker from last season.

Throw in the Trojans’ most recent first-round exit in the NCAA tournament and the departure of towering forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, and it’s not hard to see why the Nov. 11 date isn’t circled on most Trojan fans’ calendars.

Though all of these factors have detracted from the build-up to USC’s upcoming season, the team still has a bit of an edge: its schedule.

After hosting the Matadors, the Trojans will kick off a non-conference schedule guaranteed to get them noticed, if for no other reason than because of the high-caliber teams they are set to face.

USC starts with Nebraska, which the Trojans narrowly lost 60-58 last season despite holding a 20-point lead late in the first half.

The Cornhuskers barely missed the NCAA tournament a season ago, but do return four of five starters for 2011 and will certainly make a splash in their first season as members of the Big Ten.

The Trojans then go on the road to begin one of their toughest non-conference stretches in recent memory, starting with reigning Mountain West champion and NCAA tournament two-seed San Diego State.

The Aztecs, who have only lost twice at home in the last two seasons, are fresh off a 34-3 season in which they were upset in the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion Connecticut.

After two home games to begin the Las Vegas Invitational, the Trojans will head to Las Vegas to face UNLV, who finished third in the Mountain West behind SDSU and BYU and also earned a NCAA tournament berth.

And if that weren’t enough, a potential matchup with perennial-powerhouse and preseason No. 1 North Carolina looms large the next day, assuming USC can win a couple of games.

And that’s just the first three weeks of the season.

USC will travel to Minnesota to face a Gopher team quickly rising to national relevance, before hosting Georgia, TCU and eventually No. 13 Kansas at the Galen Center to close out the nonconference portion of its schedule.

This certainly isn’t the best way to ease into a Pac-12 slate that features three top-25 teams in Arizona, California and UCLA, and a slew of others on the upswing, but a season chock-full of great matchups should not be a point of pessimism.

“I’m of the mindset [that] you have to play people to get better,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said after Wednesday’s practice. “You need to play games at a high level to get ready for conference play.”

At the college level, perception matters, and the Trojans will get more than their share of opportunities to prove themselves on a stage that otherwise wouldn’t be available without nationally relevant opponents.

If USC can manage to win a couple of these big nonconference games, much like it did last season with wins over Texas and Tennessee, the Trojans will make a strong case to potential recruits that Southern California is as much a place to succeed in basketball as it is football.

Similarly, with some success, the team can back up recent efforts to bring in more fans to its games and begin to properly utilize the Galen Center as a loud arena that truly offers home-court advantage.

It might seem backward, but with the team already at a disadvantage because of injuries, this season is the perfect time to take some risks and look to shake up the landscape of college basketball, especially on the West Coast.

The Trojans have stayed relatively quiet since they were hit with self-imposed sanctions for the 2009-2010 season — Kevin O’Neill’s first with the program, but continuing to fly under the radar won’t help the Trojans bring in the future talent they need to succeed in the long run; proving they have some degree of staying ability, however, will.

Rather than sink back into obscurity, the Trojans are much better served by challenging top teams across the country.

After all, why shouldn’t they?

In the long run, and just maybe in the immediate future, it should help the team progress.

With seemingly everyone expecting a major falloff from the Trojans, there’s no better time to risk it all.


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