After losing forward Nikola Vucevic to the NBA Draft (16th overall) and defensive specialist Marcus Simmons to graduation, USC was dealt a further blow over the summer when Senior point guard and second-leading scorer Jio Fontan tore his ACL during an exhibition trip in Brazil. Despite these setbacks, the future looks promising on the hardwood for the Cardinal and Gold.
Just a few short weeks ago, USC picked up a commitment from Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell, who will provide some much needed depth in third-year coach Kevin O'Neill's backcourt next year. Rated No. 53 in the Rivals 150 and the No. 11 shooting guard in the Class of 2010, Terrell will have to sit out for the 2011-2012 season per NCAA transfer rules.
Saturday also marks an important day for SC as the top overall prospect in the Class of 2012, Shabazz Muhammad, will be making his official visit to Troy. A 6'6" swingman out of powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Muhammad has the big name cache and talent to transform the program from the middle of the pack in the newly expanded Pac-12 to a legitimate title contender overnight.
A complete, explosive player with an especially developed defensive game, Muhammad would start anywhere in the country as a freshman. And he would certainly be the focal point of an offensively-challenged USC team for however long he remains on the roster.
A commitment from Muhammad is not as far-fetched as it may seem for a school that doesn't necessarily have the basketball tradition of a Kansas or a North Carolina. Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, played for the Trojans during the 1980s.
O'Neill is also leveraging the professional success of previously unheralded Trojans like Vucevic and Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, in addition to higher profile players like DeMar DeRozan and O.J. Mayo, and his lengthy NBA coaching experience as a way to land Muhammad.
While most outlets have Muhammad as a Kentucky or UCLA lean, don't count the Trojans out just yet. As the basketball recruiting season progresses, a dark horse may emerge, and USC may very well be that school. Muhammad is also considering offers from the likes of Duke, Kansas, and Memphis.
On the floor this year, the Trojans will have a decidedly fresh look. With Fontan and sophomore forward Curtis Washington sidelined with potentially season-ending injuries, youth will be the name of the game in the Galen Center. Expect Kevin O'Neill to rely on diminutive and speedy shifty sophomore guard Maurice Jones to handle the ball for the majority of games, with Dewayne Dedmon, a 7-foot transfer from Antelope Valley college, contributing on the inside. Dedmon, who still has three years of eligibility remaining, will be playing with a cast on his broken right hand a la Greg Oden.
O'Neill has spoken highly of Dedmon in the media, mentioning him as a potential lottery pick even though he hasn't logged minutes for a Division I school. Without Vucevic, Simmons, or Alex Stepheson to back him up, he certainly will have to mature more quickly as an imposing interior defender. O'Neill expects Dedmon to be fully healthy for the Trojans' home opener on Nov. 11th against Cal State Northridge.
True freshman guard Alexis Moore out of Long Beach Poly will contribute significantly at the two-guard position while Jones is on the floor, while sophomore forward Garrett Jackson will likely see minutes at forward. Also in the frontcourt rotation are Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller and 7-footer James Blasczyk.
Another player in the backcourt to keep an eye on is walk-on Danilo Dragovic, the younger brother of UCLA's Nikola Dragovic. A native of Belgrade by way of Harvard-Westlake, Dragovic is currently buried in the depth chart behind Jones, Moore, Greg Allen, and Byron Wesley, but is essentially an unknown because he wasn't allowed to play his senior year of high school. With a wide open backcourt aside from Jones, Dragovic, along with Moore, will be counted upon to make the Trojans competitive in Pac-12 play.
Though there are many questions approaching tip off about a team that has been bit by the injury bug especially hard, USC should be able to compete in a still-down Pac-12 that is lacking big-time talent outside of Westwood.
It's an especially encouraging sign for USC that talented Serbian players like Dragovic and 2012 commit Strahinja Gavrilovic are looking the Trojans' way after the success of Vucevic under the tutelage of O'Neill and his staff. If O'Neill and company can lock up some overlooked international talent and one or two elite California players, USC may be well on its way to continued success on the hardwood. And that should put fans in the seats at the Galen Center and a smile on athletic director Pat Haden's face.
Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more updates on Trojan hoops.