Following an eventful offseason, it’s finally time to see the results of college basketball’s version of Extreme Makeover. Eight months after USC concluded a historically bad season on a 10-game losing streak, the USC men’s basketball team — featuring nine new players, including five transfers — is looking for a fresh start.
That first opportunity to turn over a new leaf comes Friday night, as the Trojans host the Coppin State Eagles at the Galen Center, with tip-off set for 8 p.m. The Eagles finished 14-16 with a 9-7 conference record last season, but are being picked to finish 10th in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after losing all five starters because of graduation.
The Eagles’ top returning scorer is Taariq Cephas, who averaged 5.7 points per game and was named to the MEAC All-Rookie Team as a freshman. Like USC, Coppin State has nine new players on its roster; Towson transfer Troy Franklin is expected to take over the role as leading scorer.
The Trojans did not practice like the team usually does on Thursday, instead using the day to watch game tape of the Eagles.
USC opened the 2011-12 season with a home win over Cal State Northridge at Galen, but coach Kevin O’Neill is mum on his expectations for Friday’s opener.
“We want to try to get a win,” O’Neill said. “You go into every game trying to get a win. In college basketball, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. If they’re wearing short pants and a jersey, they have a chance to beat you, so we have to come every game and play the right way.”
For O’Neill and the team, the “right way” focuses on defense, physicality, and above all, total commitment to playing together as a unit.
“If you become an all-in team, you win games,” O’Neill said. “You win on hustle, sharing the ball and all of the things that come with those. That’s what we have to be.”
All four of the currently eligible transfers figure to play a role in the rotation and the fifth, 7-foot-2 Rice transfer Omar Oraby, has been granted a hardship waiver to play immediately.
For three of the transfers, Friday’s game will be their first NCAA contest in nearly two years.
“I’m a little bit nervous, but as soon as I go out there it will all go away,” said junior forward Ari Stewart, who sat out last season while redshirting after transferring from Wake Forest. “I’m just trying to make sure I get everything right.”
Another transfer, junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell, said that O’Neill’s practice style is invaluable preparation for the actual season.
“I think we might play even faster than in-game speed in our practices,” said Terrell, who averaged 24.4 points per game last year playing for Peninsula College in Washington after leaving Wake Forest following his freshman year. “We’re a lot more physical [in practice] than what the refs are going to call in the game, so we’re prepared with that.”
Despite the loss of last year’s leading scorer in guard Maurice Jones, Terrell and senior point guard Jio Fontan, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, will form what could be a dynamic starting backcourt duo.
“They’re veteran players and they both play with force,” said O’Neill. “They’re both playmakers, so I wouldn’t trade those two for any other backcourt in the country.”
The Trojans set a school record for losses last season, finishing 6-26 and winning only one Pac-12 game, against Utah. In addition to the loss of Jones (now at Iowa State), forward Garrett Jackson and guard Alexis Moore also transferred to Saint Mary’s and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Despite the losses, the Trojans returned 52.2 percent of their scoring from last year and 56.8 percent of their rebounding.