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Trojans get on board

After being badly outrebounded in tournament loss, USC expects to go further this season. First item of business: winning the opener.

November 15, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

Taj Gibson cannot forget.

The margin was just too overwhelming.

Kansas State outrebounded USC, 44-27, in the NCAA tournament last March, converting numerous put-back shots in an 80-67 first-round victory that eliminated the Trojans from a return to the round of 16.

Gibson, a 6-foot-9 forward, took a respectable nine rebounds in the defeat, one above his season average. But Kansas State's differential inspired him to increase the intensity of his preparation for this season.

"I knew I needed to improve my rebounding and I worked on it," Gibson said this week. "We've got some new players and I think we're going to be a better rebounding team. That's going to help us go deeper into the tournament."

USC begins its journey today when the No. 18 Trojans play UC Irvine at the Galen Center.

Gibson and junior guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis are returning starters, freshman forward DeMar DeRozan the top newcomer for a team that is expected to challenge for the Pacific 10 Conference title and possibly more.

Fourth-year Coach Tim Floyd saw positive signs in an exhibition victory over Azusa Pacific and a closed scrimmage against Loyola Marymount, but he noted much room for improvement.

"This is going to be a good team at some point," he said. "We're not ready to go play the Lakers."

USC's most immediate concern is winning its opener, an accomplishment that has eluded the Trojans in Floyd's first three seasons.

A deeper and healthier roster, including freshmen DeRozan and Leonard Washington, could help the Trojans avoid the season-opening setbacks they suffered against Cal State Northridge, South Carolina and Mercer.

It also is expected to help them reach a school-record third consecutive NCAA tournament.

DeRozan, a former Compton High star, is being counted on to help fill the scoring void left by the departures of O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson.

The 6-7 DeRozan impressed before official workouts began -- "He does some things in the pickup games that make your jaw drop," Lewis said -- performed well in practice and scored a team-high 21 points against Azusa Pacific.

Floyd, though, cautions that DeRozan faces challenges all freshmen encounter: learning how to play hard for long periods while defending at a new level.

"He's much further ahead than I thought he'd be in that area," Floyd said. "He's a quick study."

The 6-7, 230-pound Washington and 6-9, 235-pound Alex Stepheson are expected to provide much-needed physical presence and take some of the rebounding onus off Gibson.

Washington, a 2007 recruit from Louisiana who did not initially qualify academically, is eager to contribute. "Someone has to take on that role," he said. "Taj can't do it alone."

Stepheson, a North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake High graduate, transferred from North Carolina to be closer to home because of his father's health issues. He has practiced while anxiously awaiting for the NCAA to decide whether he can play immediately or must sit out a season.

Floyd said on Friday that Stepheson's paperwork was recently sent to North Carolina, which has a week to 10 days to process it.

Sophomore forward Kasey Cunningham, who is returning from knee surgery, senior center Keith Wilkinson and transfer Marcus Johnson, who will be eligible after the first semester, are other players USC needs to step up around the basket to help a team that finished seventh in the Pac-10 in rebounding last season.

"We haven't been a team with enough second-chance opportunities," Floyd said.

Gibson spent the summer and fall studying top rebounders such as Dwight Howard and Dennis Rodman. He told Floyd he intended to average 10 rebounds a game.

Gibson had 19 points and 14 rebounds against Azusa Pacific, but he knows the level of competition will increase starting today and will become tougher as the Trojans move through their schedule in preparation for the conference and NCAA tournaments.

"I'm going to challenge myself every game," Gibson said. "We all can't wait to get started."




USC Roster

Kasey Cunningham, 6-7, So., F: Appears sound after two left-knee surgeries. Made all six shots and had four rebounds in exhibition against Azusa Pacific.

DeMar DeRozan, 6-7, Fr., F: Probably O.J. Mayo's successor on the one-and-done front. Showed in exhibition against Azusa Pacific that he can score and also be unselfish.

Mamadou Diarra, 7-0, Fr., F: Still raw but making progress and gaining strength and confidence. Could help the Trojans in spurts, especially as a shot blocker.

James Dunleavy, 6-6, Fr., G: Son of Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy is walk-on who could provide depth at guard. Redshirted last season while working on strength.

Taj Gibson, 6-9, Jr., F: Told Coach Tim Floyd he intended to average 10 rebounds a game. Set a USC record last season with 83 blocked shots.

Terrence Green, 5-11, Sr., G: Hard-working walk-on played a total of eight minutes in seven games last season. Provides good practice presence and depth if needed.

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