Things have certainly changed for the Trojans and the rest of the Pac-10 during this hectic college hoops season thus far. Despite losing three recruits, Solomon Hill, Lamont Jones, and Derrick Williams, to Arizona, it is USC who is an 8 ½ point favorite over the Wildcats for today's conference opener.
Despite all the doom and gloom stories during the preseason, USC, not Arizona, is in fact ranked just outside the Top 25 and expected by many to seriously challenge for the Pac-10 title after compiling an 8-4 record during nonconference play despite the absences of Mike Gerrity and forward Leonard Washington for a majority of the games.
On the flip side, Arizona, which has appeared in 25 straight NCAA tournaments, has struggled this season with a 6-6 mark, including a 30-point home to BYU. Life without Lute Olson has certainly been more challenging than many UA fans had expected.
But nevertheless, despite the "down year" for Arizona hoops, today's contest carries a lot of intrigue and importance for the Trojans, who look to start off conference play on the right foot while also prevent UA from making an serious dents in Southern California in terms of recruiting.
More about today's game after the jump.
Facing a young team led by a new head coach in Sean Miller, UA's fourth head coach in the past four season, this may be Kevin O'Neill's best opportunity to extract revenge on his old team.
The last laugh, or at least the next laugh, might be Kevin O'Neill's for the taking tonight.
The former UA interim head coach, once named Lute Olson's permanent successor, has bounced back after not being retained for the 2008-09 season.
O'Neill spent a year with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies as an assistant coach and scout before taking over the troubled USC program in June.
Since then, he's gotten all of his players back from a variety of injury and eligibility issues. And he's watched the Trojans buy into his man-to-man-only philosophy after they ran occasional defensive gimmicks under former coach Tim Floyd.
The physical and athletic Trojans hold opponents to just 37-percent shooting and are 8-4, suddenly a dark horse candidate to win the Pac-10.
The Wildcats are 6-6, struggling to focus offensively, defending porously at times, and displaying a fragile confidence after a 30-point home loss to BYU on Monday.
They are in danger of being KO'd.
Yet, while a lot of people expect O'Neill to be bitter about the Arizona situation - O'Neill was asked to leave the school after being named the successor to Lute Olson by then-AD Jim Livengood - he continues to be emphatic about the fact that he is content with his career.
O'Neill said he never tried make a legal issue of athletic director Jim Livengood's December 2007 announcement that O'Neill would succeed Olson.
"My only response is I just don't have the time to be worried about anything else," O'Neill said. "It's unfortunate the way things played out, but that's life in this business. Arizona should be glad with the choices they made. Sean Miller is a good coach."
Whether O'Neill continues to hold any lasting grudges with Arizona really isn't the point, as he presently has a great situation here at USC. His team is on a six-game winning streak that has suddenly made them relevant on the national level once again. The fact that the Pac-10 is going through a transition year has further made ‘SC a dark horse candidate to win the conference and earn a trip to the Big Dance. His recruiting class for 2010 also ranks in ESPNU's top 25.
In other words, life is good for O'Neill, as he is very confident about the potential of his team for not only the coming years but also for this season.
When forward Leonard Washington became academically eligible last week, Kevin O'Neill told his team two words that show either supreme confidence or complete hubris.
The players didn't say much at the time, but for the USC coach to talk that way says enough.
"I don't think we're an odds-on favorite to win the national title or anything like that, but why would you play the game if you don't think you have a chance to win it?" O'Neill said Wednesday. "I'm going to try to win one. That's what everybody wants to do in our business."
While O'Neill's talk is certainly a tad bit premature, the fact that he is confident and excited about USC basketball is certainly a refreshing site to see. Too many times in this program's history have there been coaches, who view this job as a stepping stone to a more prestigious school or are just disappointed to be coaching at ‘SC in the first place. It's clear that by his comments, that O'Neill views this program as an exciting venture and is willing to do everything possible to see to it that championship banners of some sort are eventually raised in the rafters of Galen Center. The simple fact that we have a coach who genuinely wants to be here and feels he can turn this ship around is something that we as Trojan fans can truly be thankful for, as 2009 officially comes to a close tonight.
But for now, let's just hope ‘SC can take care of the ‘Cats and extend its winning streak to seven games. I'll have the gameday thread up later in the day.