Just six games into the 2009-2010 college basketball season, there are still plenty of questions surrounding Kevin O'Neill's rag-tag Trojan bunch. USC, which presently holds a rather pedestrian 2-4 record, has proven capable of competing with some of the nation's top teams (see: Thursday's game at Texas), while at the same time, they have also showed a tendency to lose to inferior opponents (see: a November 21st home loss to LMU). Based solely on these games, it can be rather difficult to evaluate these Trojans, who continue to raise numerous question marks that make in nearly impossible for ‘SC fans and casual observers to form any conclusions regarding this year's squad. However, even with that said, there are still a few things that the early part of the season has taught us:
1.) Nikola Vucevic is a budding star
After just six games, one thing is absolutely clear: Nikola Vucevic is the most skilled big man in the Pac-10 conference. I don't mean to suggest that he is the most complete player or the most physically dominant. In fact, I strongly believe his shot-blocking, defensive positioning, and ability to run a pick-and-roll could all use some work, especially at this stage in his career. However, I do mean to suggest that the true sophomore is the most complete big man that the conference has to offer in terms of offensive skills and fundamentals. He is capable of scoring in numerous ways, either down at the block or 10-15 feet away from the basket. So far this year, "Kid Euro," as the message board geeks frequently call him, has averaged a double-double with 14.5 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game despite attempting just 11.5 field goals per game. As the season progresses, expect Vucevic's offensive efficiency to continue to grow.
2.) Donte Smith is not an adequate Pac-10 point guard
Personally, I really like Donte Smith. The guy is a hard worker, and he lost a ton of weight this past offseason in order to better serve a depleted Trojan team this year. However, despite his efforts, there is still very little reason to believe that the Pomona, California native can actually serve as an effective point guard for the Trojans. Early results indicate that Smith is incapable of distributing the ball to the team's scorers efficiently, as he presently posts a sub-par assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:5. That isn't going to cut in the Pac-10, even if it's a down year for the conference.
3.) Free throw shooting is still an issue
Under Tim Floyd, free throw shooting served as the team's Achilles' heel, as poor shooting down the stretch often proved extremely detrimental to the team's chances of success. It doesn't appear any different in 2009, as the team collectively holds a free throw shooting percentage of 67%. That just isn't going to win games. As the 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers proved, free throw shooting can often determine results and when a team is shooting this poorly from the charity stripe, it's tough to imagine them winning any close games.
4.) Dwight Lewis should not be your best player
Being one of the few holdovers from the Tim Floyd era, it is understandable as to why so many fans and media members were prepared to anoint Dwight Lewis as the savior for the 2009-2010 USC basketball season. But early results indicate that Lewis is not prepared to shoulder the burden as the team's leader. Through six games, the Louisiana native, who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, has posted an average of just 10.7 points per game. That won't satisfy too many people, especially after the senior captain was expected to shoulder much of the offensive burden with the departures of DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson, and Daniel Hackett. What has been the most disturbing aspect of Lewis's season thus far has been his tendency to be a complete non-factor in some games. After scoring a season-high 22 points in the opener against UC Riverside, he scored just 11 and 6 in the following two games against Loyola Marymount and Coppin State. In Saturday's debacle at Georgia Tech, in which the Trojans lost by 26 points, Lewis scored zero points while playing just six minutes. It's a bad sign when your supposedly top player can score over 20 points in one game yet fail to score at all in another.
5.) Reinforcements are needed
In the season opener against UCR, Kevin O'Neill played just seven players - a clear indication of the team's severe lack of depth at this point in the season. Luckily, help is on the way. North Carolina transfer, Alex Stepheson, who missed the first two games of the season, has come on strong as of late. Against Texas, Stepheson was a severe disappointment after going 0-for-8 from the field, while scoring just 1 point. Yes, he did grab eight rebounds, which was a much needed boost for the team, but his offensive capabilities were severely limited. However, against Georgia Tech, it looked as if the 6'9" center had finally turned the corner by scoring 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting and grabbing 7 rebounds. If he can be that productive on the offensive end, then the Trojans will have a nice inside combination of Stepheson and Vucevic. Yet, even the return of Stepheson to form won't be enough to catapult the Trojans into the upper-echelon of the conference. They will need Mike Gerrity, a transfer from Charlotte who is eligible to play in January, to be capable of taking over the point from Smith, and Leonard Washington to continue to build upon a solid freshman season from a year ago when he returns in late December. Provided, these players can be productive, the Trojans will suddenly have a much deeper, talented roster for Pac-10 play.