Frustration is natural, but give the Trojans time.
We shouldn’t overreact. But, admittedly, it remains increasingly difficult not to.
We’re watching the USC men’s basketball team amid its worst season in school history.
The 23 losses are a program first. They have won 20 percent of their games, the lowest since the program’s inception. The Trojans have won one game since mid-December, while utilizing a shortened eight-man rotation, including two walk-ons, for much of conference play.
Nothing in that is reassuring that next year will see USC return to the NCAA tournament following four appearances in the Big Dance from 2007-2011. Most Cardinal-and-Gold fans remain understandably aggravated, frustrated and irritated with recent results. If they weren’t, it’d be strange. Nobody likes losing. And nobody likes ugly losing.
“I’m frustrated for the players,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said Saturday. “And I’m frustrated for our fans. I’ve done this for 33 years at many different places and at different levels. Basketball sometimes goes like this.”
The responses have been what you would expect: Just fire the coach. That’s what they say. It sounds easy, painless and something a school like Kentucky might do, should its team be swimming in mediocrity.
“Coaching staff should get the boot,” read one message board post following the Trojans’ latest ordeal — a 56-52 loss at Arizona State on Saturday.
But here’s the thing: USC isn’t Kentucky.
The Trojans haven’t been to the Final Four since Dwight Eisenhower was president. They haven’t won a regular season conference title since 1985. USC basketball is vastly different from USC football.
Recovering from NCAA-levied sanctions is not as seamless as USC football coach Lane Kiffin has made it look on the gridiron.
If you’re looking for an explanation as to why the Trojans have become fixated in the Pac-12 cellar, it’s a rather simple one.
USC has one player, redshirt sophomore forward Evan Smith, from its 2009 recruiting class. Its 2008 class vanished in the aftermath of then-coach Tim Floyd’s resignation three years ago. In short, USC has no recruited junior or senior scholarship players available. The Trojans lost three starters from last season’s 19-win team in forwards Marcus Simmons and Nikola Vucevic and center Alex Stepheson. They lost five players this season, three of them starters, because of season-ending injuries.
The counterargument remains: O’Neill should have recruited better.
He recruited senior guard Jio Fontan and redshirt junior forward Aaron Fuller, two transfer players, but they’ve been in street clothes for much of the season. He recruited a 7-foot center in redshirt sophomore forward Dewayne Dedmon, but he hasn’t played since Jan. 26 and has worn a splint on his hand, a brace on his left knee and a boot on his right foot at different points this season.
“I’ve never seen a team with that conglomeration of situations and circumstances that have led to where we’re at,” O’Neill said. “It’s not an excuse; it’s a set of circumstances.”
Whatever it is, it certainly explains the Trojans’ current predicament.
NCAA investigations and sanctions are designed to be crippling. The Trojans’ success in football is the exception to the rule. You aren’t supposed to be ranked in the top 10 amid scholarship restrictions and a postseason ban.
No, O’Neill’s team isn’t facing such restrictions now, but back in 2010 the program was, and that lingering cloud over the program in the months before the NCAA released its findings hampered the program.
“It killed recruiting,” O’Neill said, reflecting upon his first season with the program in 2009-2010. “I got the job late, we didn’t self-impose until January, and then we didn’t get the sanctions confirmed until May really handcuffed us for a full year.”
In football, guys will take a chance on USC. After all, the program has produced more NFL draft picks than any school in the country. But such isn’t the case when it comes to basketball. It doesn’t have the same pedigree.
The Trojans start two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior in James Blasczyk, who is a first-year transfer and has been limited because of a stress injury to his right foot. And those players aren’t the one-and-done types you’d see at top-10 programs. That talent doesn’t typically flock to the Galen Center.
Until USC is a few years removed from its self-imposed sanctions and can field a healthy unit, we won’t be able to fairly evaluate O’Neill, the coaching staff and his personnel.
Is this a coach who can annually lead the Trojans to the NCAA tournament? The top of the Pac-12 pecking order?
I’m guessing he can. A season ago, he took a depth-plagued USC team to the Big Dance. He led Marquette to back-to-back 20-win seasons in the early 1990s. But even at this point, it’s still just endless speculation.
We only know this: As the nightmarish 2012 season comes to a close, O’Neill’s young group needs more time to develop. Evidently, based on recent weeks, it needs a lot of time.
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