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BILL PLASCHKE

USC basketball team is lost and alone

A few years ago the Trojans were a program on the rise with a shiny new arena. Now, weakened by sanctions and decimated by injuries, the team limps along in a nearly empty Galen Center.

January 28, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • USC Coach Kevin O'Neill talks to guard Greg Allen during a loss to Colorado on Thursday at the Galen Center.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill talks to guard Greg Allen during a loss to Colorado… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

The chant suddenly engulfs the nearly empty Galen Center on a Thursday night, loudly, laughingly, a band of outsiders prodding at the open wound of a proud university.

The chant is being sung by dozens of Colorado fans, some of whom traveled more than 1,000 miles to be here.

The chant echoes off seats left vacant by USC students who couldn't be bothered to cross the street.

"Let's go Buff-a-loes … let's go Buff-a-loes …"

Nobody tries to drown it out with a Trojans cheer. Nobody tries to silence it with Trojans boos. Like their basketball team, which is struggling through the final few minutes of another loss, the few remaining blank faces are completely out of answers.

"It's painful," Pat Haden said.

It's amazing, actually, as if the worst sort of spell has been cast on a marquee college sport in the middle of the world's entertainment capital.

Somehow, some way, this season's USC basketball team has just completely disappeared.

Saddled by injuries and past probation defections, the Trojans have won only a handful of games. Saddled with the high expectations of the Trojans nation, they've been watched by only a handful of fans.

One minute they are averaging 23 wins a season for three years under Tim Floyd, advancing past the first round of the NCAA tournament in two of those years. Then, three seasons later — poof — they are losing their first eight conference games, failing to score more than 50 points in five of them.

"We're pinned," Coach Kevin O'Neill acknowledged. "There's no moves right now."

One minute the snazzy Galen Center is opening to rave reviews, a splendid campus arena with easy access and sparkling concourses, everybody's solution to USC's decades of basketball mediocrity. Five years later — poof — the place feels virtually empty.

The building seats about 10,000, but on most nights the Trojans barely draw one-tenth that amount, even though perhaps no sports venue in town is easier to reach and more comfortable to attend. Fans can basically turn off the 110 Freeway and into the parking lot. Students can reach their seats virtually by falling out of bed.

Yet during a 74-50 loss to Colorado on Thursday, there was seemingly only a couple of hundred fans in the stands for the player introductions, and only 11 of 28 courtside baseline seats in front of me were filled by the opening tip.

Then Haden, the school's athletic director who attends every home game, kindly invited four giggling children to come out of the stands and sit with him.

"Well, we've certainly got the room," Haden said. "The students must be in the library studying."

All the energy in the building comes from its coolest fixture, public-address announcer Petros Papadakis, who barks out each basket with a passion seemingly missing in most of the history of this program.

"I'm used to clapping and dancing at a restaurant with just three tables full, so it's all the same to me," said the radio personality, referring to his family's since-closed taverna. "I just believe in this place."

Sometimes it feels as though he is the only one. As fans began leaving late in Thursday's blowout, several spontaneously stopped by my spot at the press table to commiserate.

"Say something nice about us," requested one guy in a worn Trojans football jersey.

Like what?

"Um … the popcorn is good?"

Another fan added, "Bring back Tim Floyd. He would never lose this bad."

There is indeed a feeling among many Trojans supporters that, although Floyd was in charge during the murky activities that led to the program's self-imposed sanctions in the 2009-10 season, he never should have been forced out by then-athletic director Mike Garrett. In fact, the NCAA never convicted Floyd of any compliance crimes, and he returned to coaching a year later at Texas El Paso, where he has since gone 35-20.

All the turmoil cost the Trojans top recruits such as Derrick Williams, Momo Jones and Solomon Hill, all whom defected to Arizona. The NBA then made early grabs of Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan and, last year, Nikola Vucevic.

Two years ago, O'Neill was one of the only established coaches who could be convinced to step into this mess, and it has only gotten messier. Even an NCAA tournament appearance last season was overshadowed by his suspension in the middle of the Pacific-10 Conference tournament after he got into a verbal altercation with an Arizona booster.

Then, so far this season, they have lost three of their best players — Jio Fontan, Aaron Fuller and Dewayne Dedmon — to season-ending injuries, leaving them with a collection of bench guys and walk-ons who sometimes look like the other teams' junior varsity.

"I'm frustrated for the kids … but hopefully they will learn and look back some day and say, 'I fought my butt off no matter what,' " said O'Neill, who keeps loudly coaching and working even though few are watching and hope is dying. "We'll deal with this, we'll get it fixed, we'll be good."

Haden likes this about him. He likes his work ethic. He liked his honesty in the wake of last year's incident. He is going to give him one more season — probably no more — to get this fixed.

"This is not what we want USC basketball to be, but we think K.O. is doing all the right things to get this program turned around," Haden said. "Kevin has inherited a bad hand and we're going to give him time."

Haden paused and noted the influx of quality transfers and healthy players, led by former Wake Forest guard J.T. Terrell, who will be available to O'Neill next season.

"I expect us to be much, much improved," Haden said, needing to say no more.

For a school with seemingly unlimited resources and pride, there is indeed no excuse for not fixing the USC college basketball program. The Final Four should be a goal, not the number of people remaining in the Galen Center stands at the buzzer.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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