As television viewers across the country watched the final seconds of the inaugural Diamond Head Classic championship game tick away, ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb was quick to note that "the demise of USC basketball has been greatly exaggerated." After twelve games thus far, no statement could be more telling.
USC, which was pegged to finish ninth in the Pac-10's preseason media poll, has suddenly turned into a serious contender for the conference championship and a bid in the NCAA tournament seemingly over the past week with the arrival of Mike Gerrity. In four games with the Trojans, Gerrity has orchestrated four impressive victories with two of them coming against top 25 teams.
Friday's contest against UNLV, in which the Trojans soundly defeated the Rebels by a score of 67-56, enabled casual observers of college basketball to understand what makes the Trojans such a potent team - they continue to improve as a unit each outing. Some of the problems that plagued this team earlier in the year have started to become less of an issue such as turnovers and scoring.
The Trojans, who were last in the Pac-10 in turnovers per game more than a week ago, have suddenly started taking better care of the ball on the offensive end. Against a tough UNLV team ranked twentieth and already posting quality wins over Arizona and Louisville, ‘SC turned the ball over just seven times - their lowest total of the year.
Additionally, it appears as if the Trojans, who experienced some difficulties on the offensive end earlier this year, have shored up some of those lingering issues as the season has progressed. Instead of primarily relying on Dwight Lewis and Nikola Vucevic for most of the scoring output while collecting a low shooting percentage as well, Kevin O'Neill's bunch appears to be utilizing a more balanced attack on offense in addition to shooting a higher percentage from the field. As opposed to relying on one player to shoulder the offensive load each game, the Trojans have watched a different player step up and become the main contributor on offense for nearly every contest. Against Tennessee, Dwight Lewis and Alex Stepheson scored 21 and 19 points respectively. Against Western Michigan and St. Mary's in the early rounds of the Diamond Head Classic, Mike Gerrity, who was eventually named tournament MVP, led the team in scoring with 17 points.
In tonight's victory over the Rebels, it was Marcus Johnson who took on the heavy lifting for ‘SC. The 6'6" senior, who nearly left to play professionally overseas before O'Neill convinced the Los Angeles native to remain at USC for another season, went 8-of-14 from the field to lead the team in scoring with 19 points and earn a place on the all-Tournament team.
While these have become positive changes for the Trojans, one thing remains constant - hard-nosed defense. Tough play on the defensive end has always been the staple of Kevin O'Neill coached teams and this year is clearly no exception, as ‘SC routinely holds its opponents to well under 40% shooting. Lon Kuger's UNLV Rebels, who normally score 78 points per game while shooting 45%, were yet another team to experience difficulties on the offensive end against the Trojans, as they were held far below their season averages by scoring just 56 points per game and posting a field goal shooting percentage of 34%.
While there are a few reasons to be a tad bit worried about this bunch (Gerrity playing too many minutes, a lack of depth, poor free-throw shooting down the stretch, etc.), based on the way we thought this season was going to pan out in mid-July, criticizing much of anything about this current team is akin to splitting hairs. Yes, I can certainly address the negatives, but it is far more important for the fanbase to really sit back and reflect on the absolutely outstanding coaching job O'Neill has done thus far. With no true point guard for the first eight games, merely one returning starter in Dwight Lewis, and a current a rotation of just seven players, the fact that this bunch has defeated two ranked teams and won the Diamond Head Classic, while presently on a six game winning streak is something to be proud of as 2009 winds down.
Over the summer, most of us though that the program's future was in shambles - the 2009-2010 team would surely finish last in the Pac-10 and the new coach would find it impossible to bring in any recruits due to the ongoing NCAA investigation. But now, it's clear that neither of these forecasts is destined to occur. More likely than not, the Trojans will not finish last in the Pac-10, and in fact, they may even find themselves in a position to the win conference outright. The mere thought of that was laughable in July. As for the recruiting side, O'Neill has answered all of the lingering questions and doubts by hauling in a top 25 class for 2010 according to ESPNU. Having also earned a reputation as an effective recruiter, O'Neill went on to call the incoming class the best group he has ever recruited. Not too bad for a program that reportedly has the NCAA looming overhead with a hatchet.
And simply based on recent events, it's not too crazy either to believe that the basketball monopoly in Los Angeles is coming to a screeching halt?