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USC BASKETBALL

Moving Forward

October 17, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

First, the bad news: O.J. Mayo is long gone to the NBA, which sends the USC basketball team into the 2008-09 season minus a big chunk of its scoring power.

Now the good news: Although the Trojans might not be as flashy, they should be stronger inside and far deeper on the bench. And they get another super freshman, DeMar DeRozan, to replace Mayo.

All of which gives Coach Tim Floyd reason to hope that his team, which starts preseason practices at the Galen Center tonight, can make school history with a third straight invitation to March Madness.

"Get yourself to the NCAA tournament and make something happen at a national level on a national stage," he said.

USC plays its annual Cardinal and Gold scrimmage on Oct. 26 at the Galen Center. The Trojans' regular-season opener is at home against UC Irvine on Nov. 15.

Five issues should determine the Trojans' success in the coming season:

The veterans

The Trojans lost their top scorers in Mayo and Davon Jefferson -- almost 33 points a game -- but that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare. Among the returning players, forward Taj Gibson averaged 10.8 points and was a force inside, leading the Pacific 10 Conference in blocked shots. From the guard spot, Dwight Lewis averaged 10.8 points and Daniel Hackett averaged 8.6 with 94 assists.

New kid in town

Enter this season's new sensation. DeRozan averaged 29 points and eight rebounds at Compton High, numbers that suggest he can step into action right away. The 6-foot-7 McDonald's All-American has already impressed teammates in workouts. "When he's on the fastbreak by himself, I'm like, 'Wow, I have never seen anybody with that jumping ability,' " Gibson said. "He's so strong for a freshman."

In the paint

The Trojans ranked seventh in rebounds among Pac-10 teams last season, with most of the heavy work falling on Gibson. Front-line reinforcements have arrived, led by 6-7, 225-pound Leonard Washington, a 2007 recruit who initially failed to qualify academically. Nikola Vucevic arrives from Serbia via Stoneridge Prep, Connecticut transfer Marcus Johnson will be available in the second semester, and North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson is awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility. "For the last few years, it's only been me, basically," Gibson said. "Now we're kind of deep down low."

The sideshow

In basketball terms, Percy Miller might not generate a lot of national buzz. But the 5-11 guard from Beverly Hills High also happens to be the son of rapper Master P and, under the name "Lil' Romeo," has sold more than 1.5 million CDs, starred in an eponymous show on Nickelodeon and started a clothing line. Teammates have already gotten a taste of his pop culture celebrity. "Going around campus, girls chase you and people want to talk to you," Miller said. "They understand it by now."

Ghost of Indianapolis

There is an 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner of the Galen Center this season, too big and hairy to ignore. With NCAA investigators still digging into allegations that Mayo took improper benefits from an agent's runner while playing for USC, the program is waiting to hear about possible sanctions. "We can't worry about that anymore," Gibson said. "We have to put it out of our minds."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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