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USC's Lewis has survival skills

November 17, 2009|Pete Thomas

Dwight Lewis fakes to the inside, steps back and drains a baseline three-point shot, then hustles to the opposite end of the court and steals a telegraphed pass from a freshman to a sophomore.

Or was that from a sophomore to a freshman?

With so many young faces on the USC basketball roster, it's difficult to keep track while they are scrimmaging.

What's clear for the glaringly inexperienced Trojans, who open the season tonight at the Galen Center against UC Riverside, is that Lewis is the undisputed team leader.

The 6-foot-5 senior shooting guard is the lone returning starter on a team that was thought to be a year away from being a national powerhouse.

So, instead of playing a role on a team expected to head to the NCAA tournament for a fourth consecutive year, Lewis is the star of a group that will be hard-pressed to qualify for the NIT.

"There was so much promise," Lewis says. "Some predicted we'd be a top-10 or maybe a top-five team, if everyone came back."

But the Trojans' leading scorer -- he averaged 14.4 points last season -- maintains he's not bitter about sweet prospects turned sour. Life's too short, he says, to worry about what might have been.

However, life's also unpredictable and full of strange twists, the player concedes while recalling the many odd circumstances that have placed him in his current situation.

Late in the summer of 2005, Lewis and his family were driven from their home in Metairie, La., by Hurricane Katrina, which left their upstairs townhouse mold-ridden and uninhabitable.

"We saw the storm coming in that morning; it was all black and dark and kind of scary," Lewis says of the hurricane that killed nearly 2,000 people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. "My parents, my grandparents and my aunts . . . we just started to grab what we could. Then we hopped in the car and got out."

Lewis' basketball career had just begun to flourish. He had averaged 27.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds as a junior at Rummel High.

When the displaced family moved into a small apartment in Katy, Texas, Lewis took his game to nearby James Taylor High, where he became one of the nation's premier shooting guards.

He caught the eye of Tim Floyd, who in January 2005 had become USC's basketball coach -- with a promise to restore the program to prominence.

Lewis smiles while acknowledging the irony: He, along with new Coach Kevin O'Neill, is now being asked to restore respectability to a program left in ruins after a different kind of storm -- one that walloped USC on two fronts during the off-season.

First, three star players from last year's team announced, on the same day, they were leaving early: DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson are now in the NBA and Daniel Hackett is playing in Europe.

Then allegations surfaced that Floyd had paid a representative of former star player O.J. Mayo, prompting an ongoing NCAA investigation. Floyd resigned in June. All of the Trojans' top recruits subsequently abandoned the program.

Lewis, in essence, was the last man standing.

"I didn't believe it was happening," he says, adding that he does not believe the allegations leveled against Floyd. "But I understand the pressure and everything that was coming down on him. He had to make the best decision for him and his family."

O'Neill, who has experience coaching on the college and pro level, required only a brief inspection to gauge the 2009-10 Trojans: "There's Lewis, and then we basically have a bunch of guys who haven't played very much."

Lewis will be a marked man in every game. He will have to battle through the double- and triple-team schemes and find an open man when clean looks do not materialize.

Junior guard Marcus Simmons, a defensive specialist who spent the summer working on his shot, says the famously laid-back Lewis has been more communicative with the younger players in practice this season.

"So far, so good," Simmons says.

The team is not without promising players. It's hoped that North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson, a powerful rebounder and shot-blocker, will become an inside scoring threat.

Kasey Cunningham, sidelined for almost all of his three seasons as a Trojan because of knee injuries, is a strong inside presence and has looked good in practice.

Leonard Washington, Mike Gerrity and Marcus Johnson, all of whom are ineligible to start the season, will be key players as soon as they can return.

Forwards Nikola Vucevic, a sophomore, and Evan Smith, a freshman, will play prominent roles immediately. The same might be true of 7-foot Latvian freshman Davis Rozitis, who has a needle-thin frame but a soft shot and supposedly is gaining weight.

"A lot of people haven't seen these guys play but they're in the forefront now," Lewis says of his teammates. "They get to show what they can do and I feel like they're going to be able to handle it.

"To be honest, and it might sound cliche, but everybody on the team is looking really good."

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