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USC BASKETBALL

Kevin O'Neil tries to make the best out of a tough situation

New coach is trying to recruit players under the cloud of alleged NCAA violations by the program and former coach Tim Floyd.

July 23, 2009|Lance Pugmire

HENDERSON, NEV. — Where his predecessor associated with trouble, new USC basketball Coach Kevin O'Neill vows he won't.

"If you're not comfortable with the people surrounding a kid, then don't recruit the kid," O'Neill said Wednesday morning as he stepped into a school gymnasium to scout a club tournament game.

It was about this same time last year in Las Vegas that former Trojans coach Tim Floyd privately lamented what he described as something of a cesspool of cheating and deceit surrounding the recruitment of top basketball talent.

"Everyone's dirty," Floyd had said.

At the time, USC's program was already under scrutiny because of allegations that an advisor to former Trojans' star O.J. Mayo had accepted about $250,000 from a sports agency and funneled some of the money to the player in cash and gifts.

Floyd also expressed an uneasiness about recruiting Los Angeles Fairfax High star Renardo Sidney, to the point that the coach later was part of a conference call in which he, USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett and a university attorney called The Times asking what a reporter knew about a non-profit foundation's connection to the club team directed by the player's father.

Sidney announced he would accept a scholarship from USC, but the school later rescinded its offer and the highly touted power forward signed with Mississippi State.

Then, after leading USC to its third consecutive 20-win season and an NCAA tournament berth, Floyd resigned in June after allegations surfaced that he had given an envelope full of $100 bills to Mayo's advisor during a 2007 meeting in Beverly Hills. Floyd still has not publicly addressed that accusation, and the NCAA is investigating.

O'Neill, who was interim coach at Arizona and also has guided the programs at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern as well as coached one year in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors, is now navigating the fallout.

In one of his first interviews since the day he was introduced as USC's coach, he spoke with less suspicion about recruiting and more dedication to adding quality people to his roster than Floyd.

"I don't look poorly upon [club coaches]; it's part of the business," he said. "If you're not willing to deal with it, or if you feel so negative about it, you shouldn't be in the business."

In the wake of the latest accusations involving Floyd, and then his resignation, USC saw its roster decimated by veteran players defecting to pro basketball and recruits leaving to other schools.

O'Neill, 52, said he's looking for "guys that play hard, guys that are good teammates, guys that are talented enough to compete for a Pac-10 title," and he's already made some progress with a recruit who had recanted his oral commitment to USC after Floyd was fired.

Santa Ana Mater Dei High point guard Gary Franklin Jr. said Wednesday he was back to considering the Trojans. "I talked to O'Neill," Franklin said, "I liked what he said."

O'Neill is also meeting personally with each Trojans player and arranging visits with all of their parents. He even traveled to Montenegro and the island of Rhodes last week to visit forward Nikola Vucevic and his family.

Earlier this month, O'Neill received an oral commitment from Elizabethtown, Ky., product Curtis Washington, a 6-foot-9 forward who is the son of a retired Naval officer and a teacher.

"It comes down to what the soul of your team is going to be about -- good people make a good product, I'm a firm believer in that," O'Neill said. "Our priorities are finding good athletes who are good people who can perform at a high level."

And, he added, if that includes a so-called one-and-done elite player who will jump to the NBA after one college season, then so be it.

O'Neill must replace a minimum of 10 players on his roster by the end of the 2010-11 season -- all while under the cloud of the NCAA investigation and speculation that the Trojans basketball program might be sanctioned.

"I don't feel any desperation, although it's important not to make any mistakes in recruiting right now," O'Neill said. "What I'm doing now is telling any kid or parent that we don't know anything about this investigation, but as soon as we do, we'll let them know. We'll deal with it and we'll move forward.

"We know we're under investigation, but that's the only negative in this whole recruiting process. We have great academics, a great athletic program and an outstanding facility."

That's the pitch. Now, he'll see who's buying.

Not literally, of course.

--

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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