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USC BASKETBALL FYI

Trojans picked to finish ninth in Pac-10 basketball

USC Coach Kevin O'Neill says the team will follow the lead of guard Dwight Lewis.

October 30, 2009|Pete Thomas

It sounded like a compliment.

"As he goes, basically, we'll go," first-year USC basketball Coach Kevin O'Neill said of guard Dwight Lewis.

Members of the media don't expect that to be very far. In a vote, they picked the Trojans to finish next to last in the Pacific 10 Conference.

But that isn't Lewis' fault. He averaged a team-high 14.4 points last season and also played well defensively on the perimeter.

After Lewis?

" . . . We basically have a bunch of guys that haven't played very much," O'Neill said Thursday at the conference's basketball media day.

Good and gone

USC's expected fall is because three of its best players who could have returned -- DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett -- left school early to enter the professional ranks. The Trojans also lost Tim Floyd, the coach who had guided them to three consecutive NCAA tournaments. He resigned amid allegations of a recruiting scandal.

Floyd's departure then led to an exodus of top recruits.

More trouble

Making matters worse, sophomore forward Leonard Washington and senior guard Mike Gerrity, two of the Trojans' best players, will not be eligible until the second semester -- the former for academic reasons, the latter because he's a recent transfer.

Even so, Lewis, a 6-foot-5 senior, says there is reason for optimism.

"I think it's kind of good that we're under the radar and nobody expects a lot from us, so we have no expectations to live up to," he said.

Another point

Also troubling is the lack of a true point guard. That job will fall to Donte Smith, a junior who did not play much during league competition last season.

"There are really no challengers, per se, so he gets the job by default," O'Neill said.

Reasons for hope

Alex Stepheson, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound redshirt junior forward, is a transfer from North Carolina and a legitimate inside presence known for his rebounding and shot-blocking skills.

His primary issue is rust, though, after having sat out last season because his transfer waiver was denied in the fall.

Nicola Vucevic, a 6-10, 240-pound sophomore forward who last summer starred for Montenegro in the U-20 European Championships, also has played well in practice.

Two others will get significant playing time: junior guard Marcus Simmons, a defensive specialist, and senior forward Marcus Johnson.

Then there's Kasey Cunningham, a 6-7, 225-pound junior forward who will have a positive impact if he can stay healthy. Cunningham missed all or most of the last three seasons because of knee injuries.

USC opens with an exhibition game against Cal State Dominguez Hills on Sunday at the Galen Center.

--

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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