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Somber Trojans try to carry on after sanctions

USC players show during practice the disappointment of a season gone awry because of self-imposed punishment.

January 05, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

Shoulders slumped. Faces were devoid of expression.

Silence hung over the Galen Center basketball court Monday, finally broken by the raspy voice of USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, who wanted to discuss defense.

His players, most with their arms crossed, stared at him blankly.

"This will get easier every day that goes by," O'Neill said later. "It's one of those things. It's hard to deal with, but in the big picture you just have to move forward."

Before Sunday, USC, winner of eight consecutive games, including its first two Pacific 10 Conference games, looked like a postseason team.

After Sunday morning, when USC announced self-imposed punishment on the men's basketball program in connection with allegations that O.J. Mayo received improper benefits while in school, that image vanished.

One of the sanctions was a postseason ban, meaning USC's season ends March 6 after a game at Arizona.

"It's unfair," junior forward Alex Stepheson said.

O'Neill called the team to a 10:15 a.m. meeting Sunday to break the news. Most players thought someone was in trouble. When O'Neill finished, the room was quiet.

"It was the hardest thing I've had to do," O'Neill said. "You're talking to a guy who's been fired four or five times -- and you're not really a coach in this business until you've been fired -- but telling our team that yesterday was much harder than ever getting fired.

"I hope I don't ever have to do that again, because when you break young people's dreams and hearts, that's hard to do."

As practice wore on, spirits seemed to improve but disappointment lingered.

"We did feel like we had a chance to be in the NCAA tournament, and at least make a run in the Pac-10 tournament," senior guard Dwight Lewis said. "To have that taken away, it was hard."

The sanctions follow a university investigation into allegations that Mayo, who played for the team in 2007-08, had benefits -- including cash, clothes and a flat-screen television -- funneled to him by Los Angeles events promoter Rodney Guillory.

There are also allegations that former USC coach Tim Floyd delivered cash to Guillory in 2007.

Aside from the postseason ban, USC loses one basketball scholarship from this season and next, will limit off-campus recruiting, will vacate all 21 wins from the 2007-08 season, and return the money it received from participating in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

The NCAA could decide to impose even stiffer penalties on USC, but universities often impose sanctions themselves to ward off harsher punishment.

O'Neill said he contacted all four members of next season's recruiting class and he expects them to attend USC.

But for this season's team, the postseason ban is devastating since the patchwork squad that lost three players to the pros and five players from a recruiting class is the hottest team in the Pac-10. USC owns the conference's only two wins against ranked teams -- Tennessee and Nevada Las Vegas.

"We were on an eight-game winning streak, and to hear the news at this time is very difficult because the hopes of playing in the postseason seemed likely," senior guard Mike Gerrity said.

The goal now is to win the conference outright, something USC has never accomplished. But will that be enough to motivate the Trojans in their last 16 games?

"Yeah, it's going to be enough," Gerrity said. "It's all we have to play for."

For Gerrity, a point guard who has been the linchpin in USC's surprising turnaround, the postseason ban is especially tough.

"It was something I thought about, and seeing them last year doing it, I had hopes for it this year," he said.

Athletic Director Mike Garrett, who told O'Neill of the sanctions Saturday night, watched practice. But he declined to answer questions.

O'Neill said he stood by the school's decision.

"We're not victims here," the coach said. "We're just going to have the best season we can have."

The mood might have been best summarized by forward Kasey Cunningham, who is out because of a season-ending knee injury.

Sitting courtside, Cunningham was reading the front section of Monday's Times.

He pointed to the story about the sanctions.

"This sucks," he said.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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