USC basketball expects big things in 2011-12

Along with identifying players he wants in his program, USC coach Kevin O’Neill has spent the July recruiting period singling out the ones he doesn’t.

Kevin O'Neill has embraced transfers and it's paying dividends for USC.
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

“I’m so sick of hearing bad players tell me they’re NBA prospects,” O’Neill said. “Their parents tell me the same thing, too. I could puke. They think they’re one-and-done guys and they’re not even going to be four-and-done.

“I don’t recruit those kinds of kids.”

O’Neill’s insistence on signing tough-minded, blue-collar players has certainly paid off at USC, where he led last year’s Trojans to the NCAA tournament just two years after the program had been decimated by NCAA violations that occurred under O’Neill’s predecessor, Tim Floyd.

Even though it fell to eventual Final Four-qualifier Virginia Commonwealth in the opening round, simply making the field was an achievement for USC during its rebuilding process.

“If you look at programs that have gone through what we’ve gone through with major violations and losing two recruiting classes and postseason bans … they haven’t fared very well for awhile,” O’Neill said. “I feel really good about where we’re at, and I have a great appreciation for what our players have done under the circumstances.”

USC lost four starters – including forward Nikola Vucevic, the 16th overall pick in the NBA draft – from last year’s 19-15 team. So O’Neill understands why he gets strange looks when he suggests the Trojans could be just as good – if not better – in 2011-12.

Along with the return of team captain Jio Fontan and backcourt mate Maurice Jones, who averaged 34.5 minutes as a part-time starter, O’Neill’s optimism is spurred by the addition of a pair of transfers who practiced with the team last season but were forced to sit out under NCAA rules.

Forward Aaron Fuller averaged 9.7 points and 6.2 rebounds as a sophomore at Iowa in 2009-10. In a game against Michigan, Fuller scored 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. O’Neill expects Fuller to start immediately.

“Intensity-wise, he’s great to coach” O’Neill said. “He goes so hard all the time. He’s an excellent rebounder who scores inside and outside.”

Confident as he is that Fuller will be able to produce, O’Neill is even more amped about the arrival of 7-foot , 255-pound center Dewayne Dedmon from Antelope Valley College. Dedmon has yet to play a game at the Division I level, but O’Neill has already labeled him as a potential first-round NBA draft pick. During spring conditioning drills, the coach said Dedmon ran down the court and back in 7.9 seconds, a time that most pro players probably couldn’t duplicate.

“He has as good of a motor as anyone that I’ve coached at any level, which is saying a lot,” said O’Neill, who spent 10 years as a head coach and assistant in the NBA. “He shoots the ball way better than people think. He’s got to develop a back to the basket game, but after he does that he’s going to be a heck of a player. He just plays really, really hard all of the time.”

Fontan, who is one of Dedmon’s best friends on the team, said Dedmon’s game is different than that of last year’s forwards, Vucevic and Alex Stepheson.

“He’s 7-foot and he runs the court like a deer and shoots a jump shot like a guard,” Fontan said. “It’s hard not to be high on him. He’s different than Nik because he gets up and down the court a lot faster. He tries to get his hand on the ball and dunk everything, whereas Nik was more of a back-to-the-basket, isolation guy. DeWayne gets more into the flow of the game.”

“The expectations for him are still high. He just needs to be realistic and not pay attention to all the hype. I don’t expect him to be a guy that’s going to put up crazy numbers. He just needs to be effective and play hard.”

The addition of Fuller and Dedmon mark the continuation of what’s become a trend for O’Neill at USC. While he loves standout high school talent, O’Neill is also fond of signing transfers from junior colleges and four-year schools.

Jio Fontan returns and will have some talented newcomers around him.
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Stepheson, who began his career at North Carolina, was already on campus when O’Neill was hired two years ago and played a huge part in the success of last year’s team. In 2009-10 the Trojans received a boost from Charlotte transfer Mike Gerrity, a senior point guard who led the team to a victory over Tennessee in his USC debut.

Fontan, who began his career at Fordham, averaged 10.4 points a game last season and was often referred to by O’Neill as the team’s most important player. Sitting out under NCAA transfer rules this season will Ari Stewart and Eric Wise, who began their careers at Wake Forest and UC-Irvine, respectively.

“A lot of times you get transfers, and by the time the guys get on the court, they’re more of a man,” Fontan said. “Coaches don’t have to deal with all of that little kid stuff that guys straight out of high school bring to the table. You’re getting guys that are proven.

“We’ve put up good individual stats, but we’ve clearly made a commitment to the program just by coming here. We’re sacrificing individual stats to win. It’s a whole different maturity level compared to guys out of high school.”

Maturity and poise will certainly be necessary this season for the Trojans, who will play what should easily be one of the toughest schedules in the country. USC will play host to opponents such as Kansas, Georgia, New Mexico and Nebraska. There will be road games at Minnesota and San Diego State. O’Neill’s squad will also play in the Las Invitational, which features such schools as North Carolina and UNLV.

“It prepares you,” O’Neill said, “It makes guys grow up when they have to play under pressure the whole time. Plus, let’s be honest: Guys would rather play against Kansas than they would some of these bye games.”

USC played a brutal schedule last season, too, with non-conference games against Kansas, Tennessee and Texas. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee no doubt took that into consideration when awarding USC one of the final spots in the 68-team field.

While “getting there” may have been satisfying last season, the Trojans have bigger goals in 2011-12.

“In a funny way it’s like we’re starting a new era here,” Fontan said. “This is probably the first time where the whole team is full of K.O. recruits. We’re changing the program little by little. We’re ready to take another step.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011