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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

USC's three reasons for crying foul

Some in the men's basketball program resent freshmen who backed out on commitments to the Trojans to play for Arizona.

December 31, 2009|By David Wharton
  • Solomon Hill, right, is one of three Arizona freshmen -- also including Derrick Williams and Lamont Jones -- who backed out of their commitments to play for USC.
Solomon Hill, right, is one of three Arizona freshmen -- also including… (Eugene Tanner / Associated…)

The basketball coach at Arizona responds politely but firmly -- he will not allow a reporter to speak with his three best freshmen.

"I don't want to make this any bigger a story than it is," Sean Miller said.

He might be too late.

Today's matchup between Arizona and USC is already a big story, something more than just a Pacific 10 Conference opener, because of those three young men.

Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones were expected to play for the Trojans this season, the jewels of the 2009 incoming class.

But last spring -- about the time the NCAA began investigating alleged improper benefits to former USC player O.J. Mayo, about the time coach Tim Floyd abruptly resigned -- the three backed out of their commitments.

Not only did they leave, they jumped to a conference rival.

So when USC's much-touted recruits finally take the court at Galen Center this afternoon, it will be in the wrong uniforms, which irks at least one Trojan.

Freshman forward Evan Smith notes, with unmasked acidity, that he stuck by his commitment.

"I just want to win this [expletive] game because they left us, they left the program," Smith said. "They all decided over some [expletive] controversy, they all decided to dip out."

Strange destiny

In a weird way, the fates of USC and Arizona basketball have been intertwined by a series of events that go way beyond three athletes.

In 2007, Kevin O'Neill took over as interim coach of the Wildcats, filling in for an ailing Lute Olson. When Olson returned, he unexpectedly dumped O'Neill.

The following year, Hill committed to Arizona, only to jump to the Trojans when Olson aborted his comeback and retired.

Williams and Jones were set to join Hill at USC, signing letters of intent. But then Hill de-committed when the Trojans pursued another big man, Renardo Sidney.

The timeline grew even more tangled as the year wore on.

Arizona, still looking for a permanent coach, offered the job to Floyd, who decided to stick with USC.

But the NCAA probe subsequently widened, investigators looking into allegations that Floyd had delivered cash to one of the men implicated in the Mayo affair.

Floyd resigned, which prompted Williams and Jones to ask out of their letters of intent. At Arizona, where the Wildcats were rebuilding on the fly, new coach Miller got to work.

"We followed the NCAA rules in allowing the situation to come and go," he said. "Once they received their unconditional releases, we pursued them."

With no comments from the players, it is left to Miller to assert that the three were not good friends and it was "pure happenstance" they all chose Arizona.

In a final twist, O'Neill ended up as USC's coach. The situation appeared grim when he arrived in Los Angeles over the summer.

"Obviously, losing all those recruits was huge," he said. "Any time you have a blank recruiting class, you're really two years behind."

Moving on

It wasn't just Williams, Hill and Jones.

The Trojans gave up on Sidney and lost another top recruit, Noel Johnson. They lost three star returnees -- DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett -- who left school early to turn professional.

But the Arizona three were important, as evidenced by Hill and Williams -- Southern California natives -- quickly winning starting jobs. Jones, a Harlem point guard known as "MoMo," is a top producer off the bench, scoring 5.4 points per game.

With this influx of talent, the Wildcats have fought their way to a 6-6 record, including close losses to nationally ranked Wisconsin and Nevada Las Vegas.

"I would say we'd be fortunate to be 2-10 without them," Miller said.

Which makes USC a big surprise this season. The Trojans (8-4) recently stunned No. 9 Tennessee and defeated No. 20 Las Vegas to win the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.

They have surpassed expectations with solid play from Nikola Vucevic and Dwight Lewis, and a spark provided by transfer guard Mike Gerrity.

"Coming in, I really didn't know what to expect," O'Neill said. "Once I saw our guys, I knew we had a chance."

So the USC coach dismissed any suggestion of ill feelings toward Arizona or the three freshmen. He did not plan to raise the subject with his players.

"We've moved on," he said. "We really didn't have any choice."

At Arizona, Miller also downplayed the situation. Not once but twice during an interview, he talked about how much he respects the Trojans and O'Neill and even Floyd.

Yet, in denying access to his freshmen, Miller acknowledged a potential for bad blood between the programs, saying: "I want to try to keep that personal element out of it."

Behind the scenes, USC's Smith and Arizona's Williams -- they know each other well -- have been talking trash for weeks.

It seems the revenge factor might bubble to the surface today.

"Yeah, man, that's what it is," Smith said. "You guys left, we're still going to whup your [expletive]. You should have stayed."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.

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