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Can Trojans emerge from the shadows?

The prospects for USC and new Coach Kevin O'Neill are iffy this season, with a roster almost totally rebuilt on the fly, not to mention the specter of an NCAA investigation.

October 16, 2009|Chris Foster

As the UCLA basketball team gathered at Pauley Pavilion for a recent workout, Malcolm Lee looked from player to player, trying to single out a preordained leader.

"Could be anybody," the sophomore guard said. "We're basically starting from the ground up."

Well, it might seem like that for the Bruins, but as official practice for the 2009-10 college basketball season begins Friday, USC is the team in town that is really starting over.

UCLA lost four of five starters from last season, with seniors Alfred Aboya, Josh Shipp and Darren Collison moving on and freshman Jrue Holiday jumping early to the NBA. But USC also has only one starter back, its three best players having left school early. Plus, the Trojans have a new coach, Kevin O'Neill, and an almost entirely new recruiting class after several top prospects left in the wake of former coach Tim Floyd's resignation. Early projections have the Bruins near the bottom of the national top 25 at best, chasing California and Washington for the Pacific 10 Conference title. USC is expected to chase just about everyone.

A look at each team's five most pressing issues as they begin practice:

Who's the point?

Daniel Hackett bolted to play professionally in Europe. Lamont Jones found an NCAA investigation-free zone in Tucson, Ariz.

So whom does O'Neill trust with the ball, and the offense?

Mike Gerrity, a two-time transfer -- from Pepperdine to North Carolina Charlotte to USC -- won't be eligible until mid-December.

Donte Smith made only 18 of 70 shots with 22 assists and 29 turnovers in 24 games last season, falling so far from favor that he was ticketed out of the program until the mass exodus canceled that departure.

Percy Miller? Maybe he has been given a bad rap. But the entertainer-turned-benchwarmer has yet to demonstrate college-level skills.

What's the point?

O'Neill has enough to deal with on the court, but he also inherited the specter of the NCAA's long-running investigation into USC's football and basketball programs.

There have been allegations of envelopes stuffed with money and agent representatives hovering around the Galen Center. The flood gates opened in June, with Floyd resigning and Jones and forward Derrick Williams asking out of their scholarships. Forward Solomon Hill had already recanted his oral commitment.

Go-to guys

Dwight Lewis, a streaky scorer, averaged a team-high 14.4 points a game -- with forward Taj Gibson as an inside threat, Hackett's experience at the point and DeMar DeRozan running the court. But will Lewis still be able to score as a marked man?

Marcus Johnson was developing quite a highlight reel last season before injuring his shoulder dunking against California. He should get more touches, but the 6-foot-6 forward has yet to prove he is a consistent outside shooter.

Alex Stephenson sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina. His 6-9, 235-pound presence could lessen the loss of Gibson.

Who steps up?

Nikola Vucevic, a 6-10 forward, showed some promise against teams with big lineups, and gained experience playing for Montenegro last summer.

Leonard Washington, a 6-7 power forward, is academically ineligible for at least the first semester.

At 6-6, Marcus Simmons can guard small, quick point guards, but the rest of his game has lagged.

And there have been high hopes before for Kasey Cunningham, a 6-7 forward whose last two seasons have been ended by serious knee injuries.

It could be worse

Whom will the Trojans miss most, DeRozan, Gibson or Hackett? A difficult question.

But whom they will miss least is easy.

Center Renardo Sidney, a former USC recruit, is Mississippi State's headache now -- and he still hasn't been cleared to play by the NCAA.

-- Chris Foster

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