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Ari Stewart, J.T. Terrell welcome playing opportunity at USC

They hardly played under former basketball coach Kevin O'Neill, but are getting a lot of time on the court under interim Coach Bob Cantu. Neither player knows why O'Neill kept them on the bench.

February 09, 2013|By Diane Pucin, Los Angeles Times
  • USC guard J.T. Terrell is scoring 16 points per game since Bob Cantu became the Trojans' interim coach.
USC guard J.T. Terrell is scoring 16 points per game since Bob Cantu became… (Gus Ruelas / Associated…)

In the last five games Kevin O'Neill coached the USC Trojans men's basketball team, Ari Stewart never left the bench. DNP, DNP, DNP, DNP, DNP says the stat sheet. Did. Not. Play.

In those final five games, J.T. Terrell, like Stewart a Wake Forest transfer in his first season as a Trojan, had one DNP and averaged just a smidge above five points per game, just a smidge above one rebound per game and had not a single assist.

Since assistant Bob Cantu was promoted to interim Coach after O'Neill was fired Jan. 14, Stewart has averaged five points and almost three rebounds per game. Terrell's numbers under Cantu? He's scoring 16 points per game and has almost two rebounds per game. And there isn't a DNP because Cantu made Terrell a starter.

After practice Saturday, both Stewart and Terrell, in separate interviews, said they had no idea why their production was so limited under O'Neill and has become so pivotal under Cantu.

"KO [O'Neill] and I didn't have a great working relationship," Stewart said. "We were trying to see eye to eye but it wasn't happening. Honestly I never knew why. He didn't tell me. Coach Cantu, when he took over, he called me in and said, 'We need your outside scoring, we need you to defend the ball.' And he's giving me that chance by putting me in the game."

Terrell said his current improvement is coaching related.

"I would say I am now being allowed to play more free," Terrell said. "I'm under less restrictions, when to make a play and not make play. I think the whole team is a lot more joyful and free."

And like Stewart, Terrell said he was never sure how to please O'Neill.

"I really didn't know," Terrell said.

There has been little smooth sailing for Terrell or Stewart in their college basketball careers.

Terrell left Wake Forest shortly after receiving a charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol. He had been the leading freshman scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference his rookie season.

"I learned a lot of lessons from that," Terrell said. "I've matured on and off the court."

Terrell spent a season at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash., and he said going from the ACC to junior college was a major wake-up call as well.

"I didn't know what would happen next," he said. "Did I make that one mistake and I threw my whole life away?"

Stewart left Wake Forest under an academic cloud when he didn't play in the Demon Deacons' first conference tournament game two years ago and Coach Jeff Bzdelik said part of the reason for the suspension was because Stewart didn't meet team standards.

"That means going to class and doing what's expected. He's got some academic work he needs to address, Bzdelik told local media at the time.

And last year, while sitting out a mandatory season after he transferred to USC, Stewart was arrested in February while the Trojans were in Arizona on suspicion of possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He wasn't charged and instead participated in a drug diversion program according to the Maricopa County district attorney's office.

"That was a mistake, a big one," said Stewart, who did comply with the drug diversion program. "I am grateful to have this chance and I'm not going back and look at all the stuff I did wrong except to see it as a blessing that helped me grow up."

Stewart, a redshirt junior, is majoring in communications.

Assistant coach Tony Miller, while not downgrading O'Neill, said Terrell and Stewart are getting more court time because, he said, "Everybody has a different outlook of the situation, of the game, of who should play and who shouldn't. These two guys have natural ability and now they have a chance to play and you can see it."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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