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Men's basketball program at USC is hanging tough despite sanctions

Coach Kevin O'Neill has led the Trojans to a much more respectable showing than some other programs that had to deal with similar NCAA penalties.

February 09, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC Coach Kevin O'Neill has his critics, but his team has done fairly well compared to other programs that have been hampered by NCAA sanctions.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill has his critics, but his team has done fairly… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Fans flood his inbox with messages of disappointment, but Kevin O'Neill says it doesn't bother him.

USC's second-year men's basketball coach has rebuilt programs before and believes he can do it again.

"What you have to do in these situations," O'Neill said in his office recently, "… is you have to be able to stand some of the bad times to get to the good."

Some critics have let O'Neill know that they believe USC, at 12-11 overall and 4-6 in Pacific 10 Conference play, has underperformed. Indeed, the Trojans have lost five of their last seven going into Thursday's game against Oregon State at the Galen Center.

But considering that O'Neill took over a program that was hemorrhaging players and recruits in the wake of an NCAA investigation that resulted in a postseason ban, scholarship reductions, recruiting limitations and probation, USC really hasn't fared too poorly.

The Trojans are 28-25 under O'Neill, which looks pretty good compared to other major college programs that have been rocked by penalties.

At Baylor, for example, Coach Scott Drew took over a program in chaos in 2003 after a player was found shot to death and then-coach Dave Bliss resigned after allegedly violating myriad NCAA rules.

Four players transferred in the Bliss fallout, and in 2005 the NCAA handed down penalties that included probation, limitations to scholarships and recruiting and the cancellation of Baylor's 2005-06 nonconference schedule.

The scandal, transfers and the specter of impending sanctions marred Drew's first three seasons, when Baylor won eight, nine and four games.

Then the penalties kicked in and the challenges continued.

"Sometimes, it's like driving the car," Drew said. "If you have a governor on the car and you're going 60 and everybody else is going 70, it's tough to catch up. That's what sanctions are designed to do."

The same thing happened at Georgia when the NCAA handed down penalties in 2004 for widespread violations — mostly academic fraud — under coach Jim Harrick.

Harrick was ousted and Dennis Felton struggled to match the success the Bulldogs had become accustomed to. With a depleted roster and later under probation and with scholarship reductions, the program that lost only eight games in 2002-03, Harrick's final season, lost 49 over the next three seasons.

"This is the biggest challenge I've ever seen — as a head coach or an assistant," Felton said before his second season at Georgia, when departures left him with no seniors and four freshmen among only eight scholarship players.

Even basketball blue blood Indiana remains in rebuilding mode under Tom Crean, who replaced Kelvin Sampson as coach in 2008.

The NCAA charged Sampson with major rules violations for allegedly taking part in hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits, and Indiana faced probation and scholarship and recruiting limitations.

With two players remaining on a roster raided by early departures to pro basketball, dismissals and transfers, Crean won six games his first season — a low in school history — and 10 in his second season. Now midway through his third season, his record at Indiana is 28-59.

"Nothing short of an athletic disaster," Crean has said of the situation he stepped into.

Baylor's program has been righted by Drew, whose team was 28-8 last season and fell one win short of the Final Four. At Georgia, Felton was fired in 2009 after posting a record of 84-91 in six seasons.

O'Neill rebuilt programs at Marquette, Northwestern and Tennessee, coaching downtrodden teams to postseason tournaments, which is why USC interviewed him in June 2009.

But O'Neill knew what lay in front of him at USC. Coaching friends told him he wouldn't win five games in his first season. (He won 16.)

"This isn't going to be easy," he recalls then-USC athletic director Mike Garrett telling him during his interview.

"As long as you guys support my efforts, I don't care," O'Neill responded. "I've been through hard. I can deal with that."

O'Neill apparently has the support of USC's new administration. First-year Athletic Director Pat Haden said the coach has

"Got us on the right path. … I'm very pleased with where he's headed. We're quite satisfied."

O'Neill said rebuilding programs always face certain challenges, and his main obstacle is a lack of depth. The Trojans have been using only a seven-player rotation.

He hopes that will change next season when transfers such as forward Aaron Fuller (Iowa), center DeWayne Dedmon (Antelope Valley College) and shooting guard Greg Allen (Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas) become eligible.

USC has also signed two freshman guards and a 7-foot-1 junior-college center.

The Trojans will definitely lose three seniors — starters Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons, plus sixth-man Donte Smith — but the immediate future probably hinges on whether junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who is averaging team highs of 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, decides to leave early to play professionally.

As far as long-term goals, O'Neill's boss has a lofty one:

"If I can do one thing as an athletic director," Haden said, "I'd want to win a national championship in basketball."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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