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Learning to Share

A veteran USC team says it is ready to embrace the tenets of team play after Trojans' first losing season in five years

November 21, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

For USC, a brutal season was suddenly salvageable. A seven-game losing streak seemed like ancient history, as did those lonely walks back to Heritage Hall so many players had experienced after being kicked out of practice.

Despite a losing record, their first in five years, the Trojans had run and gunned their way to the cusp of earning an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

It was early in the championship game of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and No. 7-seeded USC, which already had upset Stanford and California by playing a selfless brand of team ball, had grabbed a seven-point lead over Oregon. The Ducks, their ticket to the NCAA tournament already stamped, were on the verge of checking out.

"It allowed us to realize that, 'Hey, we can play. We're not that losing team that we showed all season. We can win ballgames. We can beat quality teams,' " Trojan junior center Rory O'Neil said this week.

"It also showed us what we could do when we played together, play as a team. That's the whole reason we made that run in the [Pac-10] tournament, because we played together as a unit instead of [as] five individuals."

But the game did not have a happy ending for the Trojans. Oregon regrouped and USC regressed, the Ducks eventually building a 17-point second-half advantage and holding on for a 74-66 victory.

Still, the experience served as inspiration for a more mature team as it enters a new season tonight at Western Michigan.

"We wasted a whole year with superfluous aspirations and influences that really didn't mean anything," junior guard Errick Craven said. "We have the tools, we've just all got to play together. It's easier said than done. We still at times, even me, I go one-on-one and stuff like that."

A more altruistic approach on offense and stronger efforts in rebounding and on defense could be the difference between the Trojans' enduring another subpar season or returning to the NCAA tournament.

The numbers would seem to favor USC rejoining March Madness.

The Trojans, picked fifth in the Pac-10 media poll, are the only team in the conference to return the equivalent of five starters -- O'Neil, Errick and Derrick Craven, senior guard Desmon Farmer and junior forward Nick Curtis.

USC returns a league-leading 85.4% of its scoring and 73.7% of its rebounding. But does that guarantee success, especially when that production is coming from a team that went 13-17 overall and 6-12 in Pac-10 play, and the only holdover from the team that made an Elite Eight run in 2001 is the electric yet enigmatic Farmer?

Trojan Coach Henry Bibby is not so sure.

"We were really a bad defensive team and I still don't think we've bought into the defensive scheme of what we're trying to do this year," said Bibby, who replaced departed assistants Damon Archibald (Iowa State) and Kurtis Townsend (Miami) with Mike Johnson (UC Irvine) and Marvin Menzies (San Diego State). "We're like starting over again with our defense.

"Everyone wants to score, everyone wants to play offense. The good teams play defense and rebound. There's no glamour in that unless you're Dennis Rodman, getting 25 rebounds a night. I'd like to see selfish play on defense, 'I'm going to stop that guy, I'm going to stop the weak side.' "

Rebounding may be the Trojans' weak link early on. Curtis has been hobbled by tendinitis in his left knee, senior center Jonathan Oliver is academically ineligible through the fall semester and junior power forward Gregg Guenther is busy starting at tight end for the No. 2-ranked USC football team.

USC's answer at power forward is 6-8, 260-pound junior Jeff McMillan, who is eligible after sitting out last season after his transfer from Fordham.

"That's real solid for us because we were missing that last year," Farmer said, "that post guy, that banger down there."

Still, Bibby has been experimenting with a four-guard lineup.

And the three freshman guards USC brought in -- Quinton Day and twin brothers Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart -- all figure to play.

"I'm very impressed with the new people," Bibby said. "The way they're playing now, it's tough to keep them off the floor."

If they mesh well with the returners, it would be hard not to imagine the Trojans on the floor again in an NCAA tournament game come March.




DERRICK CRAVEN (Guard) -- No. 24, 6-2, 215, junior: Craven, who learned the point guard position on the fly last season, winning a three-man race and playing in every game, again will compete to run the offense, with freshmen Quinton Day and Rodrick Stewart. Though he's a stopper on defense, Craven must improve his shooting from the field (37.6%) and free-throw line (55.2%).

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