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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1998-99

Bibby Looks to Make Deep Impact

USC: Trojans hope quantity and quality can make up for lack of experience and size.

November 19, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are signs of change around the USC basketball team this season.

Take the red blotch in the corner of Brian Scalabrine's eye, for instance. It's a wound from battling with teammates under the basket.

"It's part of practice," Scalabrine said. "It's kind of competitive out there."

Or ask Greg Lakey how he feels at the end of the day.

"I go home sore every night from banging and bruising," Lakey said.

No one doubts this team is deeper and more athletic than the one that suffered through a 9-19 record last season. Leading scorer Gary Johnson is gone, but nine returning players are a year older and, arguably, wiser for their troubles. They are joined by two talented junior college transfers and what could be USC's best recruiting class in years.

All of which makes the Trojans more competitive among themselves in practice, and against such teams as San Diego State, which they defeated, 101-54, in their opener Tuesday. The question is, will they be any more competitive against the likes of Stanford and UCLA in the Pacific 10, probably the nation's toughest conference?

"Hopefully we're ahead of where we were last year," Coach Henry Bibby said. "We're still trying to figure out all the pieces."

One thing has not changed: The Trojans still lack a true center. They will have to make due with 6-foot-8 junior Jarvis Turner, the hulking 6-7 freshman Sam Clancy and Scalabrine, a 6-9 sophomore from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash.

That doesn't quite match up with such 7-footers as Washington's Todd MacCulloch and Stanford's Tim Young. Look for USC to compensate with strength in numbers. Bibby hopes to have enough mid-size bodies to keep his team playing aggressive defense for an entire game.

"More bodies to bang," he said. "More fouls to give up front."

The Trojans can counterattack with wave after wave of athletic forwards, such players as Jeff Trepagnier, a 6-4 sophomore who gets up the floor on fastbreaks. Sophomore Shannon Swillis fits the bill too. So do freshman David Bluthenthal and Lakey, a sophomore who averaged 5.3 points last season.

"Our big guys can run," freshman guard Brandon Granville said. "We want to get the ball up and down the court. We want a lot of easy baskets."

Granville is a former Westchester High star who, along with Bluthenthal and the highly regarded Clancy, make up a recruiting class ranked as high as 15th in the nation. But Granville is also a key figure in a questionable backcourt.

Sophomore Kevin Augustine was expected to start at point guard until he missed almost two weeks of practice complaining of physical and mental exhaustion. Since then, the ballhandling duties have been left to Granville and junior college transfer Quincy Wilder.

"I was put into a starting role earlier than expected," Granville said. "But Coach has given me a lot of confidence in practice. He doesn't want me to be timid or to be scared."

There are additional concerns about shooting guard. Seniors Elias Ayuso and Adam Spanich are long-range bombers who can carry the team when they get hot. Spanich made an off-balance shot to beat No. 2 Arizona near the end of last season and Ayuso made six three-point shots in a 117-71 victory over Arizona State two days later.

But neither scored consistently enough for Bibby's liking. "I'm not a big proponent of the three-point shot," the coach said.

If Ayuso and Spanich can't raise their level of play, Trepagnier or Wilder might shift to shooting guard. It's only one of the pieces in a puzzling team, and Bibby expects to spend a good portion of the nonconference schedule tinkering with his lineup.

"I don't have a problem with starting whomever," he said. "We're looking for what the team needs on the floor."

That's no surprise coming from a coach who has never been reluctant to substitute. In fact, this season offers Bibby an opportunity to go with a rotation of 10 or more players.

"It just shows how deep we are," Lakey said. "All of us play so good at certain times."

A revolving-door policy would help USC run and press against bigger, more experienced teams, but it might also leave something to be desired in the area of leadership. And that raises another question about the young squad.

Augustine, expected to step forward as a leader, took a considerable hit when he took his leave of absence. Bibby has called upon all the returning players to fill the void.

"These are the guys we have to hang our hats on," he said. "Your upperclassmen make it happen for you."

Turner, for one, is eager to answer the call. He speaks from experience, having struggled through his first two seasons at USC.

"You can't depend on the younger guys to carry you," he said. "Now it's my turn."

That's what Bibby wants to hear. He wants time to develop young players such as Granville and Clancy, who led the team in scoring in two exhibition games. He wants time to get a clearer picture of his team.

"We're still a work in progress," he said.

Just listen to the war stories his players tell after practice.

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