Out of the grumbling and disappointment with the football season springs the hope of a new birth in basketball. Last year's Trojans had an outstanding Pac-10 regular season, and then made it to the conference tournament final, stormed to the Sweet Sixteen, and led North Carolina for nearly the entire game before a lack of depth down low finally took its toll. However, the Trojans lost their their top three scorers and three point shooters, and the loss of Gabe Pruitt was especially surprising.
So why is the team #18 in both polls despite losing some great players? Obviously O.J. Mayo is one of the big reasons. He is probably the most anticipated recruit in the history of USC basketball. Mayo is a combo guard that is most suited to play the two, but he can slide over to the point. He is best described as a relentless scorer who can put the ball in the basket from deep and off the dribble. His style of play reminds many of Kobe Bryant. He is not as athletic as Bryant, but he is stronger. He will have large impact from day one.
Mayo is not the only reason for optimism either. Taj Gibson had a great freshman season, and was arguably the team's MVP last season. He returns with more bulk and gives the Trojans a true post presence, which is rare in college basketball today. Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis were also important parts of last season's success. Add some more important freshmen like Davon Jefferson, who will surprise some people, Marcus Simmons, and Angelo Johnson, and the Trojans could have a better season than last year. Until Hackett returns from a broken jaw, and the status of a possible addition in December of PF Leonard Washington becomes clear, head coach Tim Floyd will be experimenting with different line-ups. Their first opponent: the Mercer Bears.
Things To Know About Mercer
The Bears are predicted to finish in the top half of the Atlantic Sun conference, mostly because they return four starters, including their star, James Florence. As a freshman, Florence led the conference in scoring at 19.3 points per game. He will take the bulk of the shots for his team, and he is not afraid to jack it up from distance, even though he is not a great shooter. Florence also led the team in assists last season, but he is a turnover machine. That is where Mercer struggled the most last season. They were in the minus department in turnovers, which led to easy baskets.
Shaddean Aaron was the team's second leading scorer last year. He is more judicious with shot selection, and has a result shoots a much higher percentage than Florence. He is also a great rebounder for a guard. His weakness is his perimeter shooting, which was abysmal last season. Still, he gives the Bears a viable second threat in the backcourt.
The frontcourt is a problem for Mercer. They only have one player over 6-8, and he is a freshman. Mercer was a decent rebounding team in conference play, but they were bludgeoned by out of conference schools like Wisconsin, Oregon State, and Oregon. The Bears are counting on Calvin Henry to give them some of the scoring and rebounding underneath that they lacked when he missed the second half of the season due to academic ineligibility. Brian Pfohl and BeJay Corley round out the starting line-up.
Off the bench, watch for transfer guard Michael Ellis to be the guy who gives the team scoring punch. Brian Mills is another newcomer who will help them off the pine.
It seems that Mercer was a wildly inconsistent team last season. There isn't one thing that you can point to and say, "wow, that was their strength." They shot it pretty well from the free throw line, but that was about it. They were average on offense and defense. It's possible that they played zone last year, because their opponents shot a ton of three point shots: over 25 per game. In their exhibition romp over Georgia State and College University, their opponent shot 29 three pointers, which is a ton.
Mercer had some obvious weaknesses last season though. They shoot it poorly from behind the arc, and they turned it over almost 19 times per game. The teams that gave USC fits last year (UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon) were all excellent three point shooting teams that took care of the basketball. The only team that didn't fit that mold (Stanford) was able to overwhelm the Trojans with size, and Mercer can't do that.
The Trojans should beware. The Bears come from the same conference as Gardner-Webb, who just smoked Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Gardner-Webb was predicted to finish neat the bottom of the Atlantic Sun. With Ohio State losing to Findlay and Michigan State lost to Grand Valley State, college basketball is proving that anything can happen. Still the young Trojans will be hungry to get on the court for a real game, so I don't see an upset. It will be hard for a team who doesn't shoot three pointers well to beat SC if they have their man to man help defense jacked up. Mayo will have a big day in his debut, and Lewis will also light it up to carry SC to an easy win.
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