Heading into this college basketball season, I would say it's safe to say that most of us didn't really expect USC to be the least bit competitive. At the very least, a .500 season and a top-half finish in the Pac-10 would have been major breakthroughs considering the Tim Floyd fiasco that went down over the summer months.
But nevertheless, the early months of the season seemed to suggest that this rag-tag bunch actually had an opportunity to earn an NCAA Tournament berth for a fourth consecutive season - such an achievement would have been a school record. On January 2nd, the Trojans used a victory over Arizona State to position themselves towards the top of the Pac-10 with a 10-4 record.
But those Big Dance aspirations slowly collapsed on January 3rd, when Mike Garrett announced that the Trojans would be barred from appearing in any postseason tournament, including the Pac-10 tournament and NIT. Ever since that fateful Sunday morning in Los Angeles, the Trojans have stumbled to a 2-5 record. Granted, they have the chance to win the school's first regular season conference crown since 1985, but in the end, it doesn't appear as if this team is on the same page any longer.
No, the players have yet to quit - they're still playing hard, competitively, and any other cliché you want to add to the list. However, Kevin O'Neill's message and "gameplan" doesn't seem to be resonating with the group of players as it was during the holiday tournament in Hawaii. Somewhere, there has been a communication breakdown between O'Neill and his players.
Saturday night's 67-57 loss to Oregon illustrated that and many other problems that have continued to plague this Trojan bunch over the past few weeks. For one, ‘SC, which is often able to slow down a team's best player(s), has been allowing second-rate scorers to explode offensively for some strange reason. Against the Ducks, the Trojans held Tajuan Porter and Michael Dunigan to a combined 11 points. However, they watched Jeremy Jacob score a career-high 19 points and Malcom Armstead follow up with 18 points as well. If they can limit guys like Porter to such low scoring outputs, then you have to wonder why they allow some of the others to go off for career-highs. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
But while this has been an apparent problem as of late; in actuality, it's hard to place too much of the blame on the team's defensive schemes. After all, O'Neill's defensive-oriented approach has largely been responsible for keeping ‘SC afloat and over the .500 mark for much of the season.
But what is more than reasonable is to attribute the team's recent struggles to an offense, which has remained rather stagnant over the past few weeks. Despite facing opponents that have used nearly identical defensive schemes, the Trojans continue to look lost and confused. With the exception of UCLA and Washington, which primarily used man-to-man pressure, O'Neill and company have faced teams that have exclusively used zone defenses.
Yet, it doesn't appear as if they have made any adjustments whatsoever. O'Neill and the Trojans continue to utilize the same offensive schemes and don't appear capable of making any alterations whatsoever. Yes, the Trojans are going to be limited against a zone for they lack shooters, but for O'Neill to sit back and not at least have his guys try a different approach on offense is pathetic. There is little interior penetration created by the guards and little effort made to throw the ball inside to the big guys - Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. By that explanation, O'Neill is essentially behaving in an irrational manor by using the exact same approach game after game to attack a zone defense. At least, try something different. Good coaches can make adjustments and alter gameplans to improve his team's chances of winning. During this recent slide, O'Neill hasn't been doing that. That doesn't mean he's a bad coach. But it does mean, he hasn't been doing his job as of late and it shows.
I'm still hesitant to call this season a wash just yet. A Pac-10 title is still not totally out of the question - ‘SC trails Cal by just two games. But unless something changes drastically, it's tough to imagine this bunch finishing with a record above .500 over the final nine games of the season.