Kevin O'Neill did something that largely went unnoticed by fans, media types and casual passersby during last night's nonconference basketball game against Santa Clara. Something that, in many ways, enabled a young, inexperienced USC team to avoid what could have otherwise been a devastating home loss early in the season. A loss that could have possibly put a dent in the Trojans' NCAA Tournament aspirations. He gave "MoJo" the ball.
By giving "MoJo" the ball, I mean this: he abandoned his team's set plays and pre-game strategy, in order to allow freshman point guard Maurice Jones the opportunity to penetrate and create opportunities not only for himself but for his teammates. The end result? Jones finished with 29 points and five assists, as Michael Lev of the Orange County Register notes further:
Jones put on a show in his second college game, repeatedly penetrating the Broncos defense to make scooping layups or find teammates for easy baskets. He also had a game-high five assists.
"I saw this guy play so many times last spring, that looked like a high school replay to me," Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill said of the Saginaw, Mich., product.
"I knew Mo was capable of this. But for him to step up in his second game, that's big time."
On Monday night, O'Neill showed a willingness to adjust to his players and circumstances, a sign of a smart coach in tune with the game. Over the course of his college career, which has also included stops at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern and Arizona, O'Neill has earned the reputation for being stubborn, particularly in regards to his team's offensive strategy, emphasizing set plays, consistency and fundamentals.
More after the jump.
But instead of adamantly begging of his team to follow through in regards to its original strategy, O'Neill balked at the idea, and instead, said "screw it," allowing Jones to use his athleticism and make plays, taking advantages of Sanata Clara's man-to-man defense.
I've been critical of O'Neill at times during his tenure at USC, particularly during the final stretch run a year ago when his starting unit seemed particularly inept at playing against a zone defense, but Monday night portrayed O'Neill in a vastly different light. It showed a coach willing to adjust to his personnel. A coach eager to employ a strategy that, while differing from his original plan, capable of eventually exploiting a mismatch.
As USC fans, we've seen such occurrences happen on the gridiron. During the 2007 Rose Bowl, USC was tied with Michigan at three apiece at intermission, but the second half served as an entirely different account, as the Lane Kiffin/Steve Sarkisian-led Trojan offense simply abandoned the run and relied nearly entirely on the pass. At the time, ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel noted the following:
The Wolverines had limited the Trojans to 19 yards on 15 carries.
"We're talking on the headsets," offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said of his conversation with quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian. "We said, 'We're not running the ball another play.'"
On the next 30 plays over five possessions, quarterback John David Booty threw 28 passes. The other two snaps? Quarterback sneaks for first downs.
One of the things that Lane Kiffin has impressed me as a playcaller is his willingness to make radical changes in the midst of games. Against Stanford this year, Kiffin abandoned the run and had Matt Barkley throw the ball 45 times. Over the weekend against Arizona, Kiffin did the opposite, focusing in on the running game, giving starting tailback Marc Taylor 31 carries.