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Here's a USC Coach Who May Make Patience Pay Off

November 16, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

Relax, Trojan fans. Basketball season is here.

For a change, that's something to look forward to at USC. It's a welcome relief in the midst of such a disappointing football campaign.

It's a departure from the basketball team's usual role, the equivalent of halftime entertainment. But that time spent in the lower-wattage lights might actually have been a blessing for the program.

After a 9-19 season followed by two years of (barely) winning records--the type of results that would sink a football coach at USC--the Trojans are preseason members of the top 25 and are expected to compete in the upper tier of the Pacific 10. Instead of panic and upheaval, Coach Henry Bibby has been allowed to slowly build the program his way.

"I kept my same philosophy: I'm always optimistic," Bibby said. "We never got down. [Athletic Director] Mike Garrett always supported me. You have to believe in what you teach. That's the biggest thing. In anything you do, you have to believe it. We have our young people that we recruit believe in what we do. That's the positive side that I look at.

"We're going to continue to grow each year if we think that way. I never second-guess myself."

Bibby's style has enough discipline to run a structured offense and enough freedom to allow Jeff Trepagnier his fancy dunks.

It's an unapologetic approach, with a serious tone.

Even when there's an attempt at humor it can fall flat, such as Bibby's opening address to reporters at the Pac-10 media day, when he said, "We have everybody returning--some that we might not want there that are returning, but they're there. We get to deal with those guys too."

Hardly a chuckle from the room. Maybe it's better that way. USC basketball is no longer a laughing matter.

With All-American candidate Brian Scalabrine at center, the exciting Trepagnier in the backcourt, the entire starting lineup returning and some much-needed depth thanks to the incoming recruiting class, the Trojans will make some noise in conference play.

The Trojans were atop the Pac-10 after five games last season before injuries to Sam Clancy and Jarvis Turner led to a precipitous drop-off and nine losses in 13 games. The Trojans finished with a 16-14 record.

It exposed USC's lack of depth, which in turn reflected some thin recruiting classes.

At first Bibby had to recruit to fill immediate holes, a situation he likened to living paycheck to paycheck.

"Now, we've put a couple of good recruiting classes together, and now we can recruit the juniors, the sophomores, we can get people like that that will get interested in USC," Bibby said.

This year Bibby brought in 6-foot-4 freshman Desmon Farmer (whom he expects to be one of the top newcomers in the Pac-10) and junior college transfers Gennaro Busterna and Robert Hutchinson. The recently signed group for 2001-2002 includes brothers Derrick and Errick Craven, Jerry Dupree and 6-11 Rory O'Neil.

"When I first got here, you could see [recruits] kind of giving us the cold shoulder," Scalabrine said. "Now they see us play, we're exciting, we're young, we fastbreak, we dunk. They see a lot of freedom that we have. They like that freedom and they want to do that too.

"Nowadays, the recruits are opening up to us and saying, 'This is where I want to be.' "

USC is closer than ever to building an on-campus arena--although with all of the false hopes throughout the years it might be safer to believe it once the doors finally open.

That should be another recruiting boost once the Trojans leave the Sports Arena.

For now, however, "We're still at the Sports Arena and I'm happy with that until we get something else," Bibby said. "We might be a year away, we might be two years away [from a new arena]. I'm concerned about where we are right now. That's what we sell. We sell USC's campus, we sell the Sports Arena, and what our program can offer.

"You have to take a negative, so to speak, and make it a positive. [The Sports Arena] seats 15,000. Michael Jordan has played in there, Magic Johnson played in there, Larry Bird has played in there. All these great players played in there, so it's not a bad place--not that bad."

Washington had to play in KeyArena, the home of the Seattle SuperSonics, last year while its campus gym was being renovated.

"It's not the same," Washington Coach Bob Bender said. "But I think [the Trojans have] been doing it for so long, you don't want to make it an issue.

"I think one of the things that I felt, going into last year, it's not only what you and your players think of going to a building that isn't on your campus, but [what] your opponent [thinks]. I know it's not as intimidating."

The Trojans have had to scratch out what meager success they've had without a true home-court advantage. Now imagine what they could do with their own gym.

More and more, however, it looks as if they have an edge with Bibby in the coach's seat. USC took a big step to keep him there this summer by signing him to a three-year contract extension that runs through the 2004-05 season.

"I've said all along, Mike Garrett has supported me 200% in what I've been trying to do there," Bibby said. "He knows and he told me in taking the job that it would take time. 'Take your time, no rush, we like what you do, we like what you stand for.' I've kind of stood on that.

"We have done that. He saw something that, I guess, I didn't see at the time. He saw that we could come in and make a difference, and it would take time. He gave us that time to do it. We're gradually getting there. I think the family of Trojans understand that this is the process that we have to have."

Patience at USC. It's not a trait normally associated with the school. In this case, at least, it's exactly what was needed.

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address:

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