The transition was never going to be seamless. That was quite evident last Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., as the USC men’s basketball team was run off the court by No. 8 Arizona in front of a sold-out McKale Center crowd.
Less than 10 minutes in, the Trojans trailed 18-4, plagued by six quick turnovers. Things never got better. They would eventually fall by a final score of 74-50. It was the fewest points they’ve scored in a game all season- -— which is saying something — and so they dropped to 1-3 under USC interim head coach Bob Cantu, who replaced Kevin O’Neill just two weeks ago.
Yes, this much became clear: The move from O’Neill to Cantu isn’t going to be an easy one at all.
The state of the program, really, couldn’t have looked any worse at Arizona. No matter the records, matchups versus top-10 foes serve as measuring sticks and USC looked as if it didn’t belong in the same building — just two nights removed, mind you, after taking 16-win Arizona State to overtime.
The Trojans were as bad as they’ve been all season Saturday: inept on offense and seemingly disinterested in playing any sort of defense as the Wildcats reeled off 39 first-half points before easing up on the gas pedal, resulting in the relatively respectable final score.
Of course, this latest stretch of games raises the rather obvious question: Why didn’t that head coaching switch come sooner?
Of the four teams USC has played during Cantu’s brief tenure thus far, three of them — Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon — are poised to make the NCAA tournament. Currently, the three teams are a combined 51-8. And the Wildcats and Ducks are ranked in the top 25, so it hasn’t exactly been the warmest of welcomes for Cantu. Not to mention the Trojans will travel to Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday to face rival UCLA (16-5).
This is why that KO-to-Cantu handoff should’ve come around Christmas, after the 61-54 loss to UC Irvine on Dec. 20 or after the 64-56 defeat at Georgia on Dec. 22. The Trojans, already an odd mix of transfers from other Division I schools to junior colleges, could have used the holiday break as a time to adjust to a new coach and have at least one game (Dayton on Dec. 30) to grow accustomed to an altered style of play and new offensive and defensive wrinkles before conference play began.
This is all hindsight, of course. But if USC was dead set on firing O’Neill at some point by midseason as a last-ditch attempt to save the season, it, frankly, needed to come earlier — not a week before a three-game conference road trip, with stops in Tucson, Ariz. and at Pauley Pavilion.
Cantu, of course, won’t talk in those hypothetical terms.
“I can’t say that,” he said Sunday, when I asked if he regretted not getting the chance to take over sooner. “You have no control. I had no idea this was going to happen.”
No regrets, I guess.
“This is just kind of how the schedule worked out. That’s just how it goes. We just have to be prepared,” Cantu said.
But the Trojans don’t look like they’re prepared, not nearly enough. They look like they’re mid-transition, and the timing for that is far from ideal with the grueling conference slate. To date, they’ve had just four full practices in preparation for four games under the interim head coach.
“You’re preparing for a team, and you still don’t have everything [installed] that you’d like to have,” Cantu admitted.
Under O’Neill, this team was full of grinders, as the former NBA assistant preached a tough-minded defensive style. Under Cantu, at least thus far, they’ve been gunners, hoisting a total of 48 3-pointers during their last two games against Arizona and Arizona State. And as was the case Saturday, sometimes those don’t fall.
Now Cantu searches for that happy medium, somewhere between the two contrasting styles: hard-nosed defense and an up-tempo offense. But the pressing dilemma is that he already might be running out of time to get it just right.
By this point, USC (8-13, 3-5) will have a tough time even securing a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, in what would be its first appearance in the postseason tournament since 1999. With 10 regular-season games left to go, they’ll need to finish 8-2 just to have a winning record overall and 7-3 to even finish above -.500 in conference play. And though the NIT is essentially college basketball’s consolation tournament, teams do need to have more wins than losses — though not necessarily by much: Iowa, at 17-16, made the NIT’s field of 32 a season ago.
And really, it would be in the program’s best interest to be playing in a postseason tournament. They need to collect wins, to grow as a group. After all, they’ve lost more than 40 times in a two-year span.
But this is the reality of a mid-season coaching switch, and one that occurred after conference play began. There isn’t much time. They might not get that chance.
“My goal, in this whole thing, is to be playing our best basketball at the end of February and in March,” Cantu said. “Then go from there.”
By then, it might become a moot point.
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