The USC men’s basketball team’s recent free fall has become puzzling — at least somewhat to USC coach Kevin O’Neill.
Though the Trojans (5-12, 0-4) have dropped eight of their nine last games, their current five-game slide marks a season-high record and they are the only Pac-12 team to remain winless in conference play. The third-year coach, however, insists it’s not all bad news.
“I go through all of our tapes and I like the shots we get,” O’Neill said. “I like the fact [that] we don’t turn the ball over. I like how we play defensively. I like how we rebound.”
The results haven’t all been pretty, but USC hopes the shots will finally start come Sunday, when it hosts UCLA at the Galen Center, where it hasn’t lost to its crosstown rival since 2009. Last week, when the Bruins (9-7, 2-2) earned back-to-back wins over Arizona and Arizona State, the Trojans arguably hit their low point last weekend.
O’Neill’s bunch stumbled, losing 62-53 against the Sun Devils, who featured just six scholarship players. Three days later, they made just one of 15 3-point attempts in an 11-point loss to Arizona.
USC’s offensive woes, however, haven’t been limited to just one weekend. The team is averaging 53.9 points per game, good for 341st in the country. It’s also shooting just 39.9 percent from the field 309th nationally.
“I’m telling these guys to keep shooting the ball,” O’Neill said. “It’s like the lottery, you can’t win unless you buy a ticket, so you have to keep shooting the ball.”
Injuries have complicated the team’s efforts for anything close to a midseason surge. Junior forward Aaron Fuller, who leads USC in rebounding with 6.2 points per game and is also the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.8 points per game, is currently day-to-day with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which caused him to miss the second half of Sunday’s loss to Arizona. He was held out of practice Tuesday.
Fuller originally sustained the injury during a preseason scrimmage against Air Force and the left-handed forward has been forced to shoot right-handed for most of the season.
“Hopefully I can be ready to go by Sunday,” Fuller said. If Fuller can’t go, USC will boast just seven scholarship players, including junior center James Blasczyk, who has been held out of practices this season because of an injury to his right foot. And the list doesn’t stop there. Sophomore forward Evan Smith, out with a shoulder injury, and senior guard Jio Fontan, out with a knee injury, are still expected to miss the remainder of the season.
“We’ve been devastated by graduation and injuries unfortunately,” O’Neill said.
UCLA shouldn’t necessarily make things any easier on the Trojans, either. In its last game, sophomore center Josh Smith looked as good as ever, coming off the bench to record a season-high 18 points in the 17-point victory.
“They’re returning a ton of players,” O’Neill said of the Bruins, who have won seven of their last nine games. “I think they’re a very good team that is only going to get better.”
For USC to be successful, it will once again be forced to rely heavily on sophomore guard Maurice Jones, who is second in the country in minutes per game, averaging 38.65 per contest. Jones, who leads the team in scoring with 14.3 points per game, is just one of four players nationwide to average more than 38 minutes per contest.
“He’s our best creator,” O’Neill said of the second-year guard. “He’s the only guy we have who played at all last year. It’s a lot to ask of him, as a sophomore, to get you 20 a game, every game.”
Sophomore center Dewayne Dedmon, who has averaged just under 10 points per game in conference play, has been helping out Jones. The 7-foot center, who is second on the team in rebounding with 5.6 rebounds per game, had been playing with a stress injury on his right foot for most of the season, but Dedmon finally appears to be symptom-free and nearly 100 percent.
“We’re just about to get everything going because we have a young team,” Dedmon said. “Everybody is trying to get acclimated to the speed of Division I basketball.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. and will be televised on FSN.