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January 19, 2012
No need to keep score, it's only basketball
The only question to ask about all the recent "Let's give Kevin O'Neill another year" talk is where was it last year?
When the third-year USC basketball coach should have needed it. When the issue should have been decided once and for all. And we wouldn't have to deal with it now.
When O'Neill put himself ahead of his players and was suspended for personal conduct unbecoming a USC basketball coach the night before the most important game, to that time, of his and his players' Trojan careers. And so the last program that let him go, Arizona, got the last laugh on KO.
As it turned out, his players didn't seem to miss him all that much, taking that Arizona team with the ex-USC recruits, down to the wire. That was a far better showing than the Trojans made after coming out curiously flat the next week to lose a first-round NCAA game to a Virginia Commonwealth team that seemed really excited to be in the tournament.
But we digress. Which may be why none of the talking points for keeping KO this year even mentioned what would seem to be the single-most salient judgeable moment in his tenure at Troy.
What they did mention was how it was "ludicrous" to even talk about making a change now. That this season doesn't matter. That it's just a blip on the upward ascent of USC basketball under O'Neill, who is unfairly being held to account for the NCAA sanctions damage of three seasons ago.
They say this season doesn't matter. And that may be true. If it did, would so many of USC's basketball scholarship athletes be transfers standing around on the court in street clothes before every game unable to play?
Has a day gone by this season when someone around the USC basketball program hasn't lamented how the Trojans "lost one whole recruiting class" in the NCAA mess when Derrick Williams & Co. were released? But if that were true, how in the world does a program go out and sign players who can't come in and play right away?
What if Kentucky's John Calipari reported in to Wildcat fans that there was no way they could expect him to compete this season because his last two classes were all gone -- off to the NBA after a year each in Lexington? You think that'd fly?
Then why does it fly here? Three years is two lifetimes in the one-and-out world of college basketball these days. Williams has come and gone at Arizona. And yet a not-very-talented Wildcat team still beat USC at Galen.
Who would do what USC has done here? Who would complain about losing a class and then bring in a class that was already lost to this year? And then say you don't have any players? What sense, other than excuse-providing, does that make?
There's a really bad-taste joke that comes to mind here about the LA brothers who killed their parents and then asked for mercy since they were orphans -- but we won't go there.
Sure, those transfers, along with the rehabbing Jio Fontan might be just what USC needs -- players who can score on their own with no help from the offense. But in a Pac-12 that's bad beyond belief this season, was it a good idea to postpone competition until the 2012-2013 season?
Hard to imagine USC's Charles Griffin Cale Director of Athletics Pat Haden signed off on the proposition that KO's Season 3 wouldn't come until next season -- his fourth year here. But that's where this all seems to be going.
That's when we'll see "the big picture," we're told. Nothing else would be "fair," they say. After all, KO took the job "when no one else wanted it."
Which of course is totally untrue. Not even close to reality. The team Tim Floyd left behind, even without Williams, or the underclass departures of Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett, might well have been the most talented in the Pac-10. Had those four stayed, that USC team might have won a national title.
But the cupboard was hardly bare. USC had three-year starter Dwight Lewis as its leading scorer with the best one-two big man combo in the league in the 6-foot-10 pair of NBA player Nikola Vucevic and North Carolina-transfer Alex Stepheson, the best defensive player in the Pac-10 in Marcus Simmons, the instant offensive talent of 6-6 UConn transfer Marcus Johnson, another 6-6 talent in Leonard Washington, who would later transfer, senior point guard transfer from Charlotte Mike Gerrity and last year's starting guard Donte Smith.
USC would beat No. 9 Tennessee by 22 points, No. 20 UNLV by 11 and UCLA twice by a total of 25 points. But after reaching 16-9 (8-5 in the Pac-10) before the self-sanctions took the tournament away, USC finished with a thud. The Trojans' five straight losses included three 40-point games USC fans are getting too familiar with these days.
The point here is that this USC program was not a disaster by any means after Floyd. And if it's heading that way, it's not because of what happened back in 2009-2010.
A case can be made that USC had as talented a team as anyone in the Pac-10 a year ago, even without much depth, with Vucevic, Stepheson and Simmons joined by a trio of talented new guards -- Fordham-transfer Fontan and freshmen Bryce and Maurice Jones.
But now Floyd's players are gone. And the program is falling apart, a winless 0-5 in the woeful Pac-12. One injury, we're told, to Fontan's knee in Brazil in August, did the Trojans in, No way to overcome that, we've been told over and over again. No Jio, no offense. It's that simple. What's a coach to do?
Well, coach, maybe. Find a way to win. That's what they pay coaches to do, not make excuses. Not point to the guys who can't play and say "See you next season."
The injury news has been fast and furious this season. Two players, one starter -- Aaron Fuller, and one first sub -- James Blasczyk, who played Sunday against UCLA, haven't been able to practice all week every week, we're told, and couldn't take a single shot but then played in the game. And now Fuller is supposed to be gone, as well, for shoulder surgery.
Much the way Dewayne Dedmon, USC's 7-foot lottery-pick hoops neophyte, came down with a stress fracture that was supposed to have him out for weeks two days before he played at Minnesota and he hasn't missed a game. Although he will miss out on the NBA next year. He's been strangely stuck-in-place this season with no real opportunity to improve his athletic skills the way he can run, jump, catch the ball and shoot it.
Maybe next year.
There's improvement on the horizon, we're told, even if it hasn't exactly happened the last three years under a coach whose 16-year college coaching record has him under .500 at 528-536 despite 15 of those years at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern, Arizona and USC.
Just wait, you'll see, they say. Only 13 more Pac-12 games to get through. And who's counting wins and losses, anyway. No need to improve this season. Maybe they'll put an asterisk in the media guide for this season that doesn't really count.
And then the Trojans will be back in business. Galen Center, USC's most public and prominent campus building, will prove it was worth the money. Fans will flock to see four new starters. Offense everywhere you look. No excuses. Judge them then. Not now.
Now is for judging whether a USC football program, with a whole lot more moving parts and much more actual impact from serious and ongoing NCAA sanctions under a much-younger coach, deserves its long-range pick to make it to next year's national championship game.
Because no one is asking those Trojans to wipe Lane Kiffin's third season off the record books.
Nor is anybody on the football side of things here acting as if they can take a season off and ask for "a mulligan."
Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.