If this past USC basketball season seemed a little familiar to Trojan fans, it's no wonder.
The late run to the Sweet 16 by the hoops squad had the same feel as the 2002 football team's hot ending to its season.
Okay, maybe some of the particulars weren't quite the same, but to paraphrase Pete Carroll after his first Orange Bowl win, it appears that the Trojan basketball program under Tim Floyd is just getting started.
Skeptics who've followed USC hoops for years might say they've seen this all before and that the recent momentum can't, or won't, be sustained. Some of the skepticism is well founded. After all, the program was one of the best in the West until years of neglect and a decaying home court—not to mention an overarching emphasis on football—made Trojan basketball an afterthought in Los Angeles and even in Heritage Hall itself. Despite pockets of success in the last quarter century, namely a Pac-10 title under Stan Morrison, a No. 2 NCAA seed under George Raveling and a run to the Elite Eight under Henry Bibby, little was done to tap USC basketball's full potential.
Things appear to have changed under Floyd. First off, the Galen Center gives USC a real home court advantage and shows that the program is a priority at Troy. And for the first time, USC is attracting national level recruits, the kind that can permanently change the hoops culture that is so sorely lacking at the university.
This past season, Floyd's second, USC won a school-record 25 games and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Trojans nearly got to the Elite Eight for the second time in seven years, but couldn't hold on to a 16-point second-half lead against No. 1 seed North Carolina. Despite that disappointing ending, things look up for USC in the near future.
The roster for next season won't include one of the best players in Trojan history, as two-time All-Pac-10 forward Nick Young has decided to take his game to the NBA. Nor will it feature graduated guard Lodrick Stewart, who leaves as the school's all-time leader in 3-point baskets.
But make no mistake about it, there are plenty of reasons to think that the 2007-2008 Trojan basketball squad could be one of the best in program history. Indeed, national prognosticators are taking notice, placing USC in the top 10 in several preseason listings.
The reason for the optimism is simple: While the loss of Young a year early would normally be a tragic blow, it will instead be tempered by the arrival of one of the more celebrated high school players in recent memory, O.J. Mayo. The 6-5 wunderkind could potentially be the first player selected in the 2008 NBA draft. He'll be a one-and-done Trojan, but his brief presence on the roster will raise the overall profile of USC basketball around the country. Mayo can score from anywhere on the floor and he had tremendous vision and passing ability. In short, he could be an All-American-level player from Day One.
Mayo should team with senior Gabe Pruitt to form one of the best backcourts in the nation, assuming Pruitt returns for his final season after entering his name into this year's draft (he did not hire an agent and will likely return). Pruitt has a chance to cement his status as one of the best guards in Trojan history with a strong senior year. Mayo's presence as a scoring and passing threat should help Pruitt get back to his sophomore year form when he averaged over 16 points per game.
The backcourt will have plenty of solid depth in experienced sophomores Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis. Hackett showed his mettle in the NCAA tournament, putting up 20 points against Texas. He is a tough, heady player who has the potential to be a defensive stopper. Lewis is an explosive offensive player who is not afraid to take big shots. Either Hackett or Lewis could end up being starters in a three-guard offense, or they could each perform capably at the wing. Another player to watch is 6-5 freshman Marcus Simmons.
The front court depth will be an iffier proposition for USC. Sophomore Taj Gibson is on his way to being a star and he provides scoring, rebounding and shot blocking in a way not seen at Troy since Sam Clancy roamed the hardwood. Gibson proved his worth as a defender by completely dominating North Carolina All-American forward Tyler Hansborough in their head-to-head matchup. It was his foul trouble that ended up turning the tide against the Trojans in that contest. Hence, protecting Gibson down low will be a priority for USC this year and that means another big body needs to step up. Expect 6-8 freshman Davon Jefferson, a five-star recruit, to get the first shot. Jefferson has NBA talent and is an excellent rebounder. His development could be key to the season.
If Jefferson isn't ready, that still leaves room for 6-7 redshirt freshman Kasey Cunningham to contribute, or even 6-7 freshman Leonard Washington, who was widely considered the best player out of Louisiana this past year. Also available is 6-10 junior Keith Wilkinson, who has shown flashes as a spot player, and 6-10 junior Rousean Cromwell, who is the most experienced big man on the roster.
The starting five for the Trojans in 2007-2008 should be:
When you look at that five, it has almost everything you want in a quality tournament team. Pruitt will be the savvy senior leader with the ability to defend and score from the outside. Mayo will be the superstar who can take over games and dominate smaller guards. Hackett will fill the role of the gritty overachiever who takes charges and dives for loose balls. Gibson will be the reliable low-post presence that every team must account for and Jefferson will be the rebounder with surprising scoring ability.
If the Trojans get some contributions from the bench and develop some depth, they have a good shot at surpassing last year's school record for wins in a season.
Whatever the case, it looks like USC hoops has finally got its act together. Don't be surprised if the eyes of college basketball are fixed on Jefferson and Figueroa next season.