USC informed men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill Monday morning that it was going in a different direction, ending O'Neill's four-year ride as the head man. Associate head coach Bob Cantu, who is in his 12th season as a USC assistant, will take over as interim head coach. O'Neill finishes with a 48-65 record with USC -- a record significantly soured by last season's injury-crippled 6-26 campaign.
Dealing with the loss of an entire recruiting class that included Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NBA, and a self-imposed postseason ban, the Trojans went 16-14 in O'Neill's first season. Led by Nikola Vucevic, the Trojans made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. USC lost in the First Four round to eventual Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth.
It was the 2011-2012 season that led to O'Neill's demise. The Trojans expectations were minimal after senior leader Jio Fontan tore his ACL during an exhibition trip to Brazil. The team would suffer through several injuries, derailing the season. By the end of the season, USC had six healthy scholarship players -- only two of which were starter-caliber.
Partly due to the severe rash of injuries, O'Neill was given a fourth year. With an influx of talented transfers, expectations were high entering the season, but the team struggled to jell going 5-8 against a difficult non-conference schedule. The Trojans showed signs of life in the opening two weekends of Pac-12 play, but a 2-2 start and the team's first road win in more than a year wasn't enough for the USC brass.
But what does O'Neill's firing mean for the Trojans going forth this season?
1. Renewed Opportunities - Ari Stewart has been in the dog house for more than a month. He has racked up seven DNPs (Did Not Play) in the last nine games. Since he knocked down three 3-pointers in USC's loss to San Diego State on November 25, Stewart has played double-digit minutes in only one game -- his return to his home state when USC played Georgia.
"There are certain guys that need to play...certain guys that need to play more minutes," Cantu said in his press conference Monday afternoon.
2. More JT Terrell - One of the players that Cantu believes needs to play more is Terrell. After being banished to the dog house for lack of effort, particularly on the defensive end, Terrell got out of the cold with hot shooting in the last three halves of play.
Against Colorado, he scored 11 second-half points and then he added 14 at Utah on 5-of-10 shooting -- his first 50 percent shooting performance on more than two shots this season. In both the Colorado and Utah games, his shot selection was much better.
He actively passed up contested shots he has previously taken. If he has indeed turned the corner and doesn't regress without O'Neill's constant incessancy to shoot great shots rather than good shots, he could be a big weapon for Cantu.
3. Uptempo - During the press conference, Cantu also said he plans to push the tempo more in hopes of getting easy buckets in transition. USC tried to push the ball more earlier in the season, but poor decision making led to bad shots and increased turnovers.
Now that freshman walk-on Chass Bryan has half a season under his belt as the backup point guard and Fontan appears to be gaining more and more confidence in his surgically-repaired knee, maybe results will improve.
4. More Defensive Variety - The first change Cantu mentioned when speaking with the media was the possibility of playing more zone defense. USC has used zone on occasion this season to throw off teams. He wants to use the length of 7-footers Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby (as well as Blasczyk) to completely clog up the middle of a 2-3 or 1-2-2 zone. More zone defense could also result in extra opportunities for Woolridge and Stewart due to their tall, lanky frames.
Cantu also mentioned implementing full-court pressure. This would be a new wrinkle. If it comes to fruition, the rotation will likely expand so players can get more rest in between.
5. Different Offensive Sets? - The big question mark is what will Cantu be able to do offensively? O'Neill's teams have always been known for their intense man-to-man, in-your-face defense, but the offensive side of the ball struggled while at USC. O'Neill ran more traditional, NBA sets where players run off screens to get open to receive the ball in the post or mid-post rather than looking to receive the ball going to the basket. The one-on-one basketball it created was unsuccessful.
6. Audition - Cantu will likely remain the interim head coach through the end of the season. If his goal is to become a head coach, this is the perfect audition. Already known as a solid recruiter, Cantu has a perfect opportunity to showcase his abilities. While I doubt he will get the full-time position, this is Cantu's opportunity to show that he can take over a struggling mid-major.