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Pieces Are All in Place

USC: A deeper, more experienced team is thinking about NCAA tournament run.


The excuses are gone.

USC is no longer young and inexperienced. Not with three seniors and three juniors making up the top six players. Not when the top eight players responsible for 97.2% of the team's scoring are back.

USC is not without talent. Not with a center, two forwards and a shooting guard all capable of averaging double figures in points and rebounds, plus a point guard who was fourth in the nation in assists last season.

Barring another season of catastrophic injuries, there is no reason USC, coming off a 16-14 overall record and a sixth-place finish in the Pacific 10 Conference, shouldn't make a run for the NCAA tournament.

"A year of maturity makes a difference in college basketball," Coach Henry Bibby said. "These guys are really confident, they really believe in themselves. They know what each player on the team can bring to the team.

"That's what you get when you have juniors and seniors in your program. It's something we've been working toward the last three years is getting guys that feel that way."

Still, why the slightly giddy level of optimism?

For starters, there are the starters. David Bluthenthal, Sam Clancy, Brandon Granville, Brian Scalabrine and Jeff Trepagnier (recovering from a stress fracture) all return. A group, Scalabrine said, with a chip on its shoulder.

"I still think people are gonna overlook us," Scalabrine said. "We're still 'USC basketball.' We went to the [Michael] Jordan camp this summer, and everyone else thinks we're gonna [stink]. We're still just the second-best team in the city behind UCLA."

For a while last season the Trojans weren't anyone's whipping boys. In home victories over Arizona and UCLA (the latter ending a 10-game losing streak to the cross-town rival), the Trojans showed they could play with anybody. USC stood 12-5 at that juncture, first in the conference at 5-0, and entered the AP rankings at No. 23.

But Bibby used his bench too sparingly, hoping his top six players could hold up over the course of the season.

They couldn't. Clancy and Jarvis Turner each suffered a broken foot against Arizona State, robbing the Trojans of their best inside player and their top reserve. USC's season soon crumbled; the Trojans would lose nine of their last 13.

"I feel comfortable with everyone coming back," Granville said. "I'm real confident the other four [starters] can really play. So can Kostas [Charissis], Nate [Hair] and Jarvis [Turner]. And with the new additions we have, I feel good about this team."

This time around the starters may get help.

Turner was granted a fifth season via a medical redshirt. Sophomores Hair, a 6-3 guard, and Charissis, a 6-11 center, got the most playing time of any returning reserves (Malachi Thurston and Rashad Jones are no longer at USC).

Among the newcomers, guards Desmon Farmer, Gennaro Busterna and Robert Hutchinson are considered good shooters. Farmer, a 6-4 freshman, may be the Trojans' most athletic player since, well, Trepagnier. Busterna, 6-3, and Hutchinson, 6-1, are junior college transfers.

But depth is only one problem solved. For a tournament bid "we have to be a better defensive team," Bibby said. "Each year we've gotten better, but we've still given up too many points from year to year. I think we have to be a better offensive rebounding team. And we have to pass the basketball a little more. Last year we got in positions where the ball was passed to certain people and then it stopped."

The reasons for optimism at USC are legitimate, however. And not just because the plans to build a new arena on campus (with a revised opening date of fall 2002) are in place.

"I don't think people are overlooking USC anymore," Bibby said. "Last year was an indication of people knowing our guys play hard every night, and we run things that make it difficult for them to play against us. I think teams know now we're here to play."


USC Men / Trojans at a Glance

* Last season: 16-14 overall, 9-9 Pac-10.

* Finish: Sixth in conference, did not receive a postseason bid.

* Coach: Henry Bibby, fifth season, 57-57.

* Who's new: Guards Gennaro Busterna, Desmon Farmer, Robert Hutchinson and Tyler Murphy and center Luke Minor.

* Who's gone: Rashad Jones, Malachi Thurston.

* Projected starters: Forwards David Bluthenthal (13.9 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Brian Scalabrine (17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds), center Sam Clancy (15.5 points, 6.9 rebounds), guards Brandon Granville (13.1 points, 8.3 assists) and Jeff Trepagnier (15.9 points, 6.6 rebounds).

* Key to season: The bench. The Trojan starting five is one of the best in the Pac-10. But if someone goes down--as Sam Clancy did last year because of a broken foot--or if someone just needs a rest, Henry Bibby must turn to something other than living statues in cardinal-and-gold sweats. Bibby knows what to expect from reserves Jarvis Turner, Nate Hair and Kostas Charissis. If Farmer and Hutchinson also can gain Bibby's trust, the starters will have the kind of support they lacked last season.

* Outlook: No. 23 USC begins the season ranked for the first time since opening the 1978-79 season at No. 12. Unlike the last two seasons, the Trojans have experience and depth. They are also motivated by losing nine of their last 13 games last season, and not even getting an NIT invitation. The big question: Will a less-than-riveting nonconference schedule, save yardstick matchups against Utah and Pepperdine, prepare USC for what could be one of the most rigorous Pac-10 seasons in recent memory?

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