There will be no end to the learning process.
"Everything's a first to them," USC basketball coach Tim Floyd said. "Everything we say."
The Trojans' seven freshmen – highlighted by superstar recruit O.J. Mayo – comprise nearly half the roster, from which sophomore forward Taj Gibson emerges as the wily veteran. While Floyd tried to pack the preseason with lessons on the college game for his top-ranked recruiting class, the team's ever-expanding line to the infirmary forced him to slow down.
"It could very well look like we're playing street ball in November," Floyd said last week, at Pac-10 media day.
USC tips off the 2007-08 season Saturday at 1 p.m., against Mercer in the Galen Center. The Trojans hold a preseason No. 18 ranking, although they were picked to finish sixth in the conference.
Gibson, the team's leading rebounder (8.7 per game), and sophomores Daniel Hackett (5.3 points, 2.8 assists) and Dwight Lewis (5.8 points, 2.1 rebounds) are the featured returnees from a Sweet Sixteen team that tied for third in the Pac-10. Leading scorers Nick Young (Wizards), Lodrick Stewart (graduation) and Gabe Pruitt (Celtics) are gone.
With no plans to rebuild – as this figures to be Mayo's only season in cardinal and gold – the freshmen arrived on campus early, to join the team's three juniors and five sophomores and begin the jelling process.
"We got an opportunity to lift weights and workout, when the coaches were out recruiting," Mayo said. "We wanted to get up and work out every day, instead of partying or running around the city of L.A."
It provided a significant window to get at least some of the growing pains out of the way. However, the team's bevy of injuries has pushed back the timeframe on dealing with many of the typical, early obstacles.
Hackett has lost more than 20 pounds, since breaking his jaw on Mayo's elbow during a pickup game. Doctors will remove a wire from the jaw today and evaluate Hackeett's progress. He could return later in the month, once he begins eating solid foods and regaining his strength and stamina.
Lewis (quadriceps) and freshman forward Davon Jefferson (knee) have practiced at full strength for only about a week. Freshman guard Marcus Simmons (high ankle sprain) returned Monday, after missing most of the preseason. Freshman forward Mamadou Diarra will have hernia sugery Monday. He could be out up to five weeks and could even be forced to redshirt.
"This is when players get better; this is when they grow; this is when they learn the system of play and what's important to get to the floor and how we win," Floyd said. "That's our biggest concern right now."
In the absence of upperclassmen with significant experience, Mayo – the EA Sports National High School Player of the Year for 2006-07 – has drawn praise for setting an example with solid work ethic. But, in search of a vocal leader, Floyd turned to Gibson.
"I enjoy it, because the freshmen we have are hungry," the 22-year old sophomore said. "It's not hard, because I have good teammates that understand the game of basketball and understand that I'm trying to help them."
Floyd said players tend to learn more during their freshman season than in the next three, combined. He expects the team to look simplistic at first, as he gradually introduces the Trojans to different offensive and defensive formations and evaluates his players' progress.
"You sit there as a coach and you say, 'OK, this guy gets it; this one doesn't,' in each rep," Floyd said. "Five minutes later – 'This guy still doesn't get it.' Keep repping."
Through the start of the season – including a stretch from Thanksgiving weekend to Dec. 4, which figures to start with Southern Illinois or Mississippi State, followed by Oklahoma, Kansas and No. 1 Memphis – Gibson said it would be his responsibility to keep teammates upbeat:
"'Come on, your talent's gonna come. Just keep playing; just keep playing. I know you're young; I know you're tired. Got to keep playing; college is rough. This is what you're going to go through every night and night out.'"
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com