Senior guard Dwight Lewis is the lone returning starter from last season, and with an inexperienced squad, Coach Kevin O'Neill has said that as Lewis goes, so goes the team.
Except in the Trojans' 79-53 loss Saturday to No. 23 Georgia Tech, apparently.
Lewis came into the game averaging 35.4 minutes of floor time, but played only six minutes against Tech.
"I played the guys I thought could help us win the game," O'Neill said.
Lewis, who has been shooting 29% (14-of-49) since scoring a career-high 22 points in the Trojans' season opener against UC Riverside, said O'Neill's reasoning was just.
"He just felt like I wasn't fitting in with the team at that point," Lewis said. "I was kind of slow, cramping up anyway, so he decided to take me out."
Lewis said there were no hard feelings between the two -- "Me and K.O, we have a good relationship, so it's no big deal" -- and it seemed as much after practice Monday with O'Neill staying late to work with Lewis on his jump shot.
Lewis said he can play better. When asked how, he said: "Bring more energy to the court, to the team. Just keep trying to make plays for everybody. I'm not really worried about my own game. Just trying to help everybody else get in the flow of the offense."
Aiming for recovery
O'Neill was less than pleased with his team's effort Saturday against Georgia Tech, when the Trojans fell behind 19-0 to open the game and the Yellow Jackets ended the game on a 23-8 run.
"We just gave in," he said.
Forward Nikola Vucevic, who is leading the team in points (14.5) and rebounds (10.5), agreed.
"We didn't play hard enough and we didn't execute on offense," he said. "We played bad on defense too. It was just a bad game for us."
Enter Sacramento State, a seemingly cure-all cupcake for a lack-of-effort performance.
"Winning cures everything," Lewis said Monday. "We get this win tomorrow, just keep working hard and we'll try to right this ship a little bit after these tough losses."
Not so fast. Though the Hornets won only two games last season, they have already doubled that win total this year (4-5) and knocked off Oregon State in Corvallis, 65-63.
So, on a three-game losing streak, O'Neill doesn't want the moon and the stars from his young squad.
"I want us to compete really hard," he said.
Hanging on to the ball would help too. Through six games, USC has 93 turnovers (15.5 per game), which is next to last in the Pac-10 in front of Oregon State (17.6).
Smith under the weather
The thin get thinner.
As if USC's already depleted roster could stand to shed a few more players, O'Neill said freshman forward Evan Smith is sick and could miss Tuesday night's game against Sacramento State.
With his potential absence included among Kasey Cunningham's season-ending knee surgery and the absence of two other players who are not eligible, O'Neill said he is basically working with a six-man rotation.
"When you're playing with six guys, you just want to stay out of foul trouble, give yourself a chance to win," he said. "That's difficult for us right now because we don't have a big-man sub, so if [forward] Alex [Stepheson] or [Vucevic] need a blow, we become a small team."