Trojans’ season ultimately falls short of expectations

This past season for USC men’s basketball was full of moments. There was the stunning overtime victory at UCLA in late January, and the long-awaited Galen Center court storming that followed the Trojans’ upset over No. 11 Arizona in the season’s final homestand.

Bittersweet · Senior point guard Jio Fontan’s return was a bright spot this season, but his presence was not enough to propel USC to a .500 record. - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Bittersweet · Senior point guard Jio Fontan’s return was a bright spot this season, but his presence was not enough to propel USC to a .500 record. — Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan 

In the end though, such moments proved to be fleeting. Those impressive wins turned out to be isolated bursts of stellar play that could never result in a consistently good basketball team.

This has been a team plagued by inconsistencies throughout the season. A team that started the season with Kevin O’Neill as its head coach and finished with longtime assistant Bob Cantu at the helm. The squad that couldn’t buy a basket during its nonconference struggles and ended up being jettisoned out of the Pac-12 tournament in the first round thanks to a series of defensive lapses.

The Trojans’ goal was to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence, but this squad fell flat early and then fizzled out to finish the season. USC’s 14-18 record was miles ahead of 2011-12’s 6-26 debacle, but ultimately will (and should) be viewed as a disappointment.

It was evident from early-season practices that the Trojans were rife with talent. According to Cantu, any shot within half court was “pretty much in range” for junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell. Redshirt junior forward Dewayne Dedmon drew NBA scouts to the Galen Center with his 7-foot size and athleticism, while the 7-foot-2 junior center Omar Oraby’s post skills kept the scouts’ eyes on the court when Dedmon headed to the bench. The 6-foot-6 senior forward Eric Wise could muscle down low, while senior point guard Jio Fontan’s return after missing all of 2011-12 with a torn ACL was a comeback to pay attention to.

In college basketball, though, there are two factors that almost always trump talent: coaching and consistency. In both categories the Trojans were fatally deficient.

Curse-laden rants and benching players to make a point were staples of the O’Neill era. A fiery approach to coaching works to perfection when a team is winning, but it backfired during the Trojans’ five-game losing streak early in the season. The nadir was when O’Neill benched Terrell, arguably his most talented player, for all but the final minute of the Trojans’ 70-26 romp over UC Riverside. One  month later, though, O’Neill was ousted.

So, in came the up-tempo style of Cantu, promoted to the leading role after 11.5 years as an assistant under four different USC head coaches. After scoring more than 70 points only four times in the first 17 games under O’Neill, the run-and-gun Trojans put up 74 in their first game in the Cantu era, nearly pulling off the upset over No. 10 Oregon. The team as a whole embraced the new playing style under Cantu, averaging more than 71 points per game while going 5-3 in Cantu’s first eight games.

All of a sudden, the team was performing up to its talent level. Then, that insidious bug of inconsistency unleashed its bite. After racing out to a 15-point second-half lead in Berkeley against the conference’s hottest team in Cal, the Trojans fell apart and lost 76-68 to the Golden Bears. A week later, UCLA unleashed its revenge at the Galen Center, clobbering the Trojans 75-59 in front of USC’s largest home crowd all season.

The pendulum inexplicably swung the other way just three days after the UCLA loss, as the Trojans knocked off Pac-12 leader Arizona by scoring 89 points on 61 percent shooting. But, just like the four-game winning streak earlier in the conference slate, this scoring explosion was not a stepping stone, but an outlier.

The Trojans didn’t score more than 57 points in any of their final three games, losing twice. They upped it to 66 points in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament but were bounced by Utah. Exactly two weeks after stunning the Wildcats, the Trojans were one-and-done in Vegas.

Calling this year a train wreck would be going too far. That implies that the squad had high expectations to go along with its high aspirations. The Trojans were picked ninth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. The parade of transfers — Wise, Terrell, Oraby, Ari Stewart and Renaldo Woolridge — made USC intriguing, but the Trojans were a Pac-12 sleeper at best.

Sadly, we’re human. We get caught up in the victories. We get excited, and we think of what could be. This squad performed at an elite level for a short window, but when it mattered most, the ‘Cantus’ were the ‘could-nots’.