Supposing someone said before last fall’s football campaign that the USC defense would implode on the football field, as it did at Oregon and at home against Stanford, but that after being ruled out of any postseason rewards the Trojan basketball team would impose defensive muscle.
How would those predictions have been greeted?
So it is in the glorious and unpredictable world of college sports, where first-year basketball mentor Kevin O’Neill took over a troubled program and instilled a clinging, aggressive defense, while Pete Carroll’s football team, an anticipated defensive juggernaut, had trouble galore stopping Oregon and Stanford.
O’Neill announced after USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett levied strong penalties against the basketball team—which shut it out of any postseason activity, including the Pac-10 tourney and any NCAA March Madness competition—that the Trojans would look at every game as an opportunity to prove themselves.
The strategy was simple: The incentive would be winning. Each time the team took the floor, the idea of a postseason reward was structured around that particular game.
As to how to win, O’Neill kept that strategy simple as well. There would be nothing fancy, but fundamentals would be heavily stressed, particularly that of aggressively attacking opposing offenses.
Last night, after scoring a rout over Washington at home, USC took the floor at Bank of America Arena smack dab on the Husky campus. This was when the Huskies were determined to initiate payback on their floor, where they had only lost once all season in a conference clash with Oregon.
Quincy Pondexter, after being held to two points by the suffocating Trojan defense at Galen Center, was determined in one of the senior’s final two games at home to have a good night. He did, leading his team’s scorers with 18 points, but most came late during an uphill climb.
The Trojans jumped off fast and led 32-24 at halftime. How often are the Huskies held to 24 points for a half on their home floor? Again, O’Neill stresses aggressive defense. Remember the first meeting with UCLA at Pauley Pavilion? The Bruins were held to under 50 points in a 67-46 Trojan rout.
Dwight Lewis, who provided scoring punch against UCLA in last Sunday’s 68-64 Trojan triumph at Galen Center, was the major Trojan offensive force with 22 points.
Also aiding O’Neill’s team’s cause down the stretch were sophomore Nicola Vucevic with 13 points and senior Mike Gerrity with 12. They supplied needed points at a time when Pondexter and his Husky teammates were making a strong run that almost enabled Lorenzo Romar’s team to catch the visitors.
The Pac-10 basketball race becomes more interesting all the time with the surprise Trojan team just a half-game out of first place after California’s loss to Oregon State.
Anywhere else the Cal loss would be seen as a surprise. With all that has happened in the Pac-10, as the conference where the word surprise was the watchword, things have become so fascinating in a shatter-all-conventions way that the word surprise has become obsolete.