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USC turns into a men's basketball melting pot

Trojans feature 10 players who transferred from other colleges after a player exodus in the wake of the O.J. Mayo scandal. Says Coach Kevin O'Neill: 'We'll go into every game with a chance to win.'

October 23, 2012|By Baxter Holmes
  • J.T. Terrell, left, and Ari Stewart are two of four transfers with Division I experience.
J.T. Terrell, left, and Ari Stewart are two of four transfers with Division… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

They're 10 outsiders with varying degrees of horror stories about what they left behind. USC collected them to fill a hole, and in so doing made them whole too.

"First of all," says guard J.T. Terrell, "we all want to thank USC for giving us a second chance."

Terrell is one of the 10 men's basketball players who transferred to USC, giving it the most transfers of any Bowl Championship Series conference school.

The 10 hail from California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey and Egypt, and were plucked from as far as the Bronx and as near as Irvine.

They've had friction with coaches, suffered injuries that robbed them of dozens of games, had run-ins with the law and have seen the very people who recruited them fired.

"A lot of horror stories," says guard Jio Fontan, USC's senior captain and a former Fordham star who sat out last season because of a knee injury.

But USC sought them out as a quick fix after suffering a player exodus in the wake of an NCAA scandal tied to former Trojan O.J. Mayo.

It was a bold move. Most teams are built with high school recruits and few transfers, if any, to form a core that stays intact — at least for a while.

Yet, lacking bodies, USC wanted veteran fill-ins, even if they came straight from Division I schools, meaning they would have to sit a season before becoming eligible in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.

Coach Kevin O'Neill believed that, in time, it could work.

And this season, which for USC starts Nov. 9 versus Coppin State, is that time, O'Neill says.

"We'll go into every game with a chance to win, whereas we went into 20 games last year and didn't have a chance to win," he says, citing a 6-26 record last season in which USC, plagued by injuries, won only one of 18 league games.

This season, USC debuts four transfers with Division I experience: Eric Wise (UC Irvine), Renaldo Woolridge (Tennessee) and Ari Stewart and Terrell (both of Wake Forest). They'll join a roster already laden with five other transfers.

They may be joined by the 10th transfer player on USC's roster, Omar Oraby, a 7-foot-2 center from Rice who joined the Trojans in September. USC coaches have applied for a hardship waiver to make Oraby immediately eligible, and they're optimistic that the NCAA will grant it.

The Cairo native declined to explain why he left Rice, but he's now a hemisphere away from his home, surrounded by others who are also starting over.

"They understand how I feel or where I'm coming from," Oraby says, "and that's why I feel more welcome."

They all share that sentiment.

"We all really understand each other, " says Terrell, who left Wake Forest after being charged with underage drunk driving in 2011.

Stewart, who left Wake Forest after the 2010-11 season, says their pasts have brought them closer.

"We're all we have," he says.

O'Neill understands them too.

"I know what it's like to go from one place to another, sometimes failing, sometimes not," says O'Neill, who has been the head coach at five BCS conference schools. "As long as they're good guys and they play hard, I'm cool with it."

Still, the transfers all have habits O'Neill has tried to shed.

At Tennessee, Woolridge "crashed the boards" after shooting from the perimeter; at USC he is learning to run back on defense instead.

Wise, a senior forward, says that although the unit hasn't played as one before, it is jelling because players are older.

To wit: The average age of USC's 10 transfers is about 22, and among them, they have a combined 548 games of Division I experience.

There is a great sense of urgency around the players, though. Four of the transfers have two seasons of eligibility remaining; for the other six, this season will be their last.

So, the goal is simple, they say.

As Fontan put it: "Let's go out with a bang."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

twitter.com/baxterholmes

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