The USC basketball team officially opens the season tonight against No. 2-ranked North Carolina in a first-round game of the Central Fidelity Holiday tournament at Richmond, Va.
Dean Smith's Tar Heels have already beaten Syracuse, 96-93, in overtime, and the Soviet National Team, 73-71.
Syracuse, if you remember, swept through the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament last season before losing to Indiana in the championship game. The Soviets led Bob Knight's Hoosiers by 22 points last week before Knight pulled his team off the court.
Undaunted, though, USC Coach George Raveling said: "It's a great opportunity for us. I can't see this game doing anything but help us, win or lose."
Raveling says that if his young team plays reasonably well, it will be a boost for its confidence. And, if any glaring weaknesses are exposed in a rout, Raveling will have time to correct them before the start of the conference season.
The USC coach looks at a glass as half full. Smith, though, looks at it as half empty.
Smith said earlier that his team has a long way to go to match last season's 32-4 record, winning 14 Atlantic Coast Conference games and reaching the final eight of the NCAA tournament.
"We're a very young team," he said recently. "We have only two returning starters, Jeff Lebo and J.R. Reid, and our only senior is Ranzino Smith. Our guys are walking around thinking they will be good--and maybe that's healthy. But I like to be more realistic and tell them we have a long way to go."
Smith lost three starters from the 1986-87 team, two of whom, Joe Wolf and Kenny Smith, were National Basketball Assn. first-round draft choices.
Any other program in the country might be devastated by such losses, but North Carolina rarely misses a beat.
It has been said that Smith has so many McDonald's All-American prep stars that he could open a franchise.
Reid and Lebo alone set the foundation for another strong team. Reid, a 6-foot 9-inch, 250-pound power forward, averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds last season as a freshman. Lebo, a 6-2 junior guard, averaged 13.5 points.
Reid and teammate Steve Bucknall were suspended for the opening game against Syracuse. They had been accused of assault after an altercation at a Raleigh, N.C., bar.
They weren't needed against Syracuse, though, as freshmen forwards Pete Chilcutt and Rick Fox picked up the slack by combining for 29 points.
That's just the sampling of the talent Smith has at his disposal. Scott Williams, a 6-10 sophomore center, was regarded as one of the nation's most outstanding prospects while playing for Wilson High in Hacienda Heights.
Kevin Madden, a 6-5 sophomore, who was academically ineligible last season, is paired with Williams and Reid on the front line--and a freshman guard with the delightful name of King Rice is a reserve in the backcourt behind Lebo and Smith.
In Reid and Williams, Smith has wide-bodied players who clog up most of the space in the paint.
Raveling conceded that North Carolina has superior size and numbers than his Trojans, but he said his team might be quicker. It better be.
It's doubtful that USC has a strong enough front line in 6-9 Bob Erbst, 6-8 Chris Moore and 6-9 Chris Munk to handle Reid and Williams.
However, Munk is a physical type and reportedly held his own with Reid at a high school all-star camp.
Raveling puts Reid in an elite group, among the five best college players in the country.
"When I get the ball in the post, I try to draw fouls and get three-point plays," Reid said. "I'm no leaper. I'm not going to have Michael Jordan dunks, or anything like that, so I bang and use my size."
Raveling can only hope that Reid doesn't look at the Trojans and say: "Bang, bang, you're dead."
Trojan Notes Tonight's game begins at 6 p.m. PST. It will be broadcast by KNX radio. . . . Boston University will play Richmond in the other tournament game, with winners and losers matched Saturday night. Boston is the preseason favorite to win the ECAC-North Atlantic championship after finishing third last season. The Terriers are led by 6-4 guard Drederick Irving, who averaged 18.8 points in 1986-87. . . . Richmond returns five starters from a 15-14 team of last season, including star forward Peter Woolfok, who averaged 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds. . . . USC will conclude its trip with a Monday night game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va . . . Dean Smith and George Raveling have the dubious distinction of being ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, as the nation's most overrated coaches by Inside Sports magazine. If USC upsets North Carolina, Raveling could drop out of the top 10. Smith has had seven straight seasons of 27 or more wins.