The USC Trojans were one of the final teams to get an at-large bid into the 2011 NCAA Tournament. With several key players gone from that team and a season-ending injury to guard Jio Fontan, Southern California is a long shot to get back to the Big Dance.
Fontan was supposed to provide the experience for the Trojans this season. However, he tore his ACL on the team's trip to Brazil, which is a huge loss for a team that already has to replace three other starters and their top reserve from last season.
Add in a shoulder injury that will likely cost Curtis Washington the entire season, and the fact that former Wake Forest Demon Deacon Ari Stewart and UC-Irvine's Eric Wise are eating up two scholarships but must sit out this season due to transfer rules; and that leaves Kevin O'Neill with just nine scholarship players. O'Neill usually has a tight rotation anyway so the lack of bodies does not hurt as much as the lack of talent.
Sophomore Maurice Jones will have to carry the load in the backcourt with the absence of Fontan. Jones stands just 5-7 but doesn't let his lack of size hinder his effectiveness on the floor. He played nearly 35 minutes per game as a freshman and is the team's top returning scorer.
JUCO transfer Greg Allen and freshman Alexis Moore will compete for the other starting guard spot. Allen is more of a scorer, while Moore has a well-rounded game and could become a favorite of O'Neill due to his tenacity as a perimeter defender.
The frontcourt features three transfers who should see significant roles this season to replace the losses of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson. DeWayne Dedmon is a defensive-minded seven-footer who O'Neill has raved about this off-season. Former Texas A&M big man James Blasczyk is 7-1 and offers even more size inside. Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller is expected to start at power forward. At 6-6, he is a bit undersized but Fuller does have a strong build and nice mid-range game which should help the Trojans. Evan Smith returns after using a medical redshirt last season and will back up Fuller.
Garrett Jackson will likely take over the starting small forward role. Jackson saw decent minutes as a freshman and his versatility is his biggest asset. Freshman Byron Wesley is a physical wing who will be able to play the two or three this season.
With another challenging non-conference schedule USC should once again have a solid RPI which will help their tournament resume. However, wins will be the deciding factor for this team and I do not see them finishing above .500 in the Pac-12, which will quickly burst their bubble. You never do know with O'Neill and the way his teams defend the basketball though. If they can control the tempo of the game and D' up, maybe, just maybe there is a chance the Trojans will prove me wrong.
Player to Watch: DeWayne Dedmon, C
O'Neill uncharacteristically hyped up Dedmon this offseason saying he will average a double-double and will certainly be a first-round pick, possibly as early as next summer. Those are bold statements when talking about a guy who averaged just 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds as a freshman at Antelope Valley College. Dedmon certainly looks the part and if he can back up O'Neill's praise, might become one of the more dominant big men in college basketball.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/14 vs. Nebraska
11/17 at San Diego State
11/25 vs. UNLV (Las Vegas Invitational)
11/26 vs. North Carolina/South Carolina (Las Vegas Invitational)