USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill knows it hasn’t been the easiest season.
Over the last two months, the Trojans have won once — a 62-45 home victory over injury-riddled Utah. They rank last in the Pac-12 in nearly every offensive category from points per game to field goal percentage. And if things keep up, O’Neill’s bunch will likely break a two-decade-long program record for most losses in a single season — a mark set in 1989 when the Trojans finished the year 10-22.
“The fact that we’re injured, we have a ceiling as a team,” the third-year coach said.
But with at least five games left to play, including the Pac-12 tournament in mid-March, USC (6-21, 1-13) still has a handful of lasting opportunities to salvage its trying season — at least somewhat.
The Trojans square off against Arizona on Thursday in Tucson.
“Whenever we get out on the court, regardless of our situation, we still have to play hard,” freshman guard Byron Wesley said. “If we have a losing record like we do right now, we’re still going to try to get the win. That’s not going to make us quit.”
There haven’t been a ton of bright spots for USC this season, but Wesley, among other younger players, has proven to be a glimmer of hope in an otherwise forgettable year.
The 6-foot-5 guard has averaged 34.2 minutes per game — about 20 more than O’Neill anticipated he would get last August. But because of injuries that have left the Trojans with six scholarship players healthy enough to suit up, Wesley, who hails from nearby Etiwanda, Calif., has taken on a larger role, particularly on the offensive end.
In the month of February, with sophomore center Dewayne Dedmon and junior forward Aaron Fuller out of the lineup, Wesley has averaged 12.8 points per game, and his on-the-season average of 8.4 points per game pits him seventh among Pac-12 freshmen. In the team’s last game against UCLA, a 64-54 loss, Wesley matched a career-high in scoring with 16 points.
“I need to help our team and that is going to be by scoring,” Wesley said. “[O’Neill’s] telling me to just drive the ball, look for my teammates and try to get them open shots. If not, he wants me to score.”
Similarly, sophomore forward Garrett Jackson has been thrust into a starring role in recent weeks and relied upon for scoring as well. Following Fuller’s season ending injury, Jackson has started the last nine games, averaging 11.2 points per game.
O’Neill has taken notice.
“A lot of individuals have improved,” he said. “Byron Wesley, to me, has become a legitimate scorer. Garett’s averaged double-figures as a starter. Overall, these guys have continued to play hard and continued to fight. That’s what we want them to do.”
At the very least, the Trojans will have to play hard against Arizona (19-9, 10-5) — one of three Pac-12 teams O’Neill called “deserving” of an NCAA tournament at-large berth. The Wildcats, who boast three players averaging double-figures in guard Kyle Fogg, forwards Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry, have won five of their last six games — their lone blemish a nine-point loss at first-place Washington Saturday.
“Those guys have really carried their team,” O’Neill said. “Those guys are all talented guys. They’ve got some veterans who have really anchored their team and done a good job.”
One player who has anchored USC and will be asked to do so for the remainder of the year has been sophomore guard Maurice Jones, who has averaged 38 minutes per game this season, and his 13.7 points per game average ranks first on the team.
But as the Trojans have lost 14 of their last 15 games, the 5-foot-7 guard hasn’t exactly been able to stop the bleeding.
“We just have to keep playing,” Jones said. “We just have to get through it.”
The Wildcats have lost just three times at home all season.
“They don’t lose there very often,” O’Neill said. “It’ll be a challenging place to play.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the McKale Center and will be televised by Fox Sports Arizona.