January 3, 2013 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
Hopes were high coming into the season for the USC basketball team, but a 5-8 mark after non-conference play has left much to be desired, and has most fans either giving up hope, calling for Kevin O’Neill’s head, or both.
This was supposed to be the year that the program got back on track. At least that’s what O’Neill was selling. And when you looked at the new players coming in, along with the significant contributors returning from injury, one had reason to be optimistic.
Team captain Jio Fontan, Dewayne Dedmon, and Aaron Fuller were all finally healthy. Transfers J.T. Terrell, Ari Stewart, Eric Wise, Omar Oraby and Renaldo Woolridge were all eligible. Terrell, Stewart, and Woolridge were all former four-star recruits, and Wise had a very solid career at UC Irvine, averaging over 16 points and 8 rebounds per game in 2010-11.
NCAA Tournament aspirations are virtually gone with this team before conference play even begins. So what exactly went wrong in the non-conference schedule for SC? Five main things. Here they are:
- The first reason USC struggled in non-conference play was the toughness of the schedule itself. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that Kevin O’Neill has consistently put together challenging schedules. However, this particular team, with a ton of new faces playing together for the first time, simply wasn’t ready for it right out of the get go. USC played (and lost to) Illinois (#11), San Diego St. (#19), New Mexico (#20), and Minnesota (#9). Marquette isn’t too shabby either. SC really only had three cupcakes on its schedule (two of which were losses, to UC Irvine and Georgia), when most teams have at least five or six in non-conference play.
- Kevin O’Neill was unable to settle on a consistent rotation throughout non-conference play, and still doesn’t seem to have one with Pac-12 play beginning tomorrow night against Stanford. This USC team has more depth than any O’Neill has coached during his tenure. However, the quality of that depth remains to be seen. KO began the season by starting Fontan, Terrell, Byron Wesley, Wise, and Dedmon. Lately, he has banished Terrell to his doghouse, and inserted Omar Oraby or Aaron Fuller into the starting lineup. Nothing has seemed to work, as the Trojans have consistently struggled to find any consistent flow on the offensive end. As for his bench, Ari Stewart has seen huge minutes on some nights, while sitting on the bench for the entirety of other games. Chass Bryan hasn’t proven he can play consistently at this level. Greg Allen and Renaldo Woolridge, two of the best perimeter shooters on a team that has struggled to shoot from outside, have barely seen the floor. Who is at fault for this lack of a clear rotation? Partly the coach, but also the players for not asserting themselves and forcing KO to keep them in the lineup.
- The guard play has been absolutely horrendous. Jio Fontan has really struggled to get his legs underneath him coming off the torn ACL. He is shooting just 29% from the floor and 28% from beyond the arc. J.T. Terrell, the transfer from Wake Forest who has started the most games at the two-guard spot, is shooting 29% overall and 33% from three. You simply cannot win games with those numbers. Period. Fontan should improve and he gains more confidence in the knee. For Terrell, the shot selection must improve. He is coming off an 0-9 shooting performance with 0 points in the OT win over Dayton on Sunday. He was hyped as a volume scorer coming in, but he has to play better within the offense. Right now, he is taking too many contested threes and playing far too much one on one basketball. When he’s open beyond the arc, he’s lethal. He has a beautiful shot with excellent rotation and elevation. The problem is, he doesn’t move well without the ball and he hasn’t been open nearly enough. That leads into my next point.
- Kevin O’Neill’s offense does not take advantage of the talent he has at his disposal. Terrell is the prime example. There is way too much standing around on offense for USC. They don’t have players capable of going one on one all night long. They need to move the ball more quickly, set better screens on and away from the ball, make sharper cuts, and finish at the rim. Terrell should be coming off screens all night long with his pure shooting ability. He doesn’t. USC has three 7-footers, yet they don’t play enough inside-out. They should have open shots from the perimeter all night long and be getting to the foul line much more. I don’t have a problem that Kevin O’Neill is a defensive oriented coach. Defense does indeed win championships, but you have to actually practice offense. I attended many KO practices in my days covering the team, and it’s nearly all defensive drills. USC is shooting 41% as a team overall, 32% from the three point line, and 67% from the foul line. They score just 62.6 points per game. That just doesn’t cut it. KO also said that he wanted his team to run more this year, in stark contrast to his typical snail pace. That just hasn’t happened consistently. When USC has tried to push the tempo, they haven’t finished enough on the fast break. They either turn it over or take a wild shot and fail to get fouled. They are averaging 13.6 turnovers per game. That number must come down significantly if they have any hope of turning this season around.
- This USC team is not physically or mentally tough enough right now to win games consistently. The Trojans have consistently been outscored in the first half of games (421-375, but that is distorted by a couple of blow out wins against UC Riverside and Coppin State). Kevin O’Neill has stressed that USC can’t ease into games, but his message is not getting across. The effort must be there for 40 full minutes, and it rarely has been. When the Trojans get down, they have a tough time coming back because of their lack of firepower from the perimeter. USC’s players haven’t been in big time games, so they struggle to stay mentally tough throughout the entirety of these contests. My main problem with SC’s lack of physical toughness involves the big men Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby. Dedmon consistently gets pushed off the low block when he’s trying to post up. On defense, while he does block some shots, he gives up the baseline too easily and lets smaller players box him out. As for Oraby, when he’s mentally into the game and being aggressive, he is a very skilled player. He had a stretch against Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, one of the toughest players in the Big 10 and the country for that matter, when he was simply unstoppable in the second half. The problem is, the motor isn’t always there. He should be a consistent force in the post both offensively and on the glass, but it hasn’t happened. He’s 7’2, yet only averaging 4.2 rebounds per game.
There are many more reasons you could point to for SC’s early season struggles, but the five above are some of the major ones. If they want to turn it around in conference play, they must be more efficient offensively and play 40 minutes each and every night. Their chances for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth, as most fans expected before the season, are likely over. However, if they can finally live up to the talent they have on their roster, maybe they can finish near the top of the conference and make people believe in them once again. It won’t be easy.