Reloading, Part III: The USC Trojans

by Chris Mackinder | February 8th, 2008

Imagine Tim Floyd’s stomach last April. Floyd may have single-handedly propelled sales of Alka-seltzer in the Los Angeles area to an all-time record.

Prior to April, it was assumed his Trojans, who finished T-3rd in the Pac-10 during the regular season, runner-up in the Pac-10 Tournament, and made an appearance in the Sweet 16, were set to lose one meaningful player – Lodrick Stewart – to graduation. That meant the meat of an up-and-coming team would be back in Los Angeles for the 2007-08 campaign.

Unfortunately for the Trojans, the overwhelming talent on the USC roster actually became a detriment and Floyd’s stomach began somersaulting.

Nick Young, a 6-foot-6 swingman had such a monster postseason that NBA scouts were literally camping out in his front yard. Young averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and nearly a steal per game in 2006-07. He also shot an impressive 52.5 percent from the field, including a staggering 44 percent from 3-point range, and 78.6 percent from the free throw line. All the stats had scouts drooling. (He eventually would be drafted No. 16 overall by the Washington Wizards).

Then there was junior Gabe Pruitt, who also bolstered his NBA potential with a strong showing late in the season. The 6-4 guard had both the size and experience for the next level. Pruitt averaged 12.5 points and 4.3 assists per game but scouts loved his 2.4/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, his quick hands (1.8 steals per game) and his accuracy from the charity stripe (80 percent). (The Boston Celtics selected Pruitt with the 32nd pick in the draft).

Joining Stewart on a plane, Young and Pruitt were taking nearly 44 points per game out of Los Angeles. The trio was responsible for much of the void that would be left with next year’s team: A loss of 60 percent of the scoring – the most of any Pac-10 team, a loss of 83 percent of the team’s 3-point shooting, and, most importantly, leadership.

USC’s dream of reaching the 2008 Final Four turned from a possibility to a mirage in a snap.

Or had it?

Freshman phenom Taj Gibson (12 ppg, 8.7 rpg), along with Dwight Lewis (5.8 ppg) and Daniel Hackett (5.3 ppg) – all of whom started every Trojan game – were returning. And, most importantly, USC was bringing in heralded guard O.J. Mayo. Mayo was, of course, the No. 4 recruit coming out of high school according to a number of scouting services.

Then there was Davon Jefferson, a 6-8 forward who redshirted his freshman year. Jefferson (Rivals.com’s 15th-ranked player in the 2006 recruiting class) would be joining Mayo on the court as if he were a member of the same class.

Not surprisingly, the reloading effort of Tim Floyd has paid big dividends this season. Mayo is averaging a team-best 20.1 points per game and learning how to distribute the ball better (3.2 apg) while Jefferson delivers 12.8 points, 6.1 boards, and a block per game.

After a season-opening loss at home to Mercer – yes, Mercer! – the Trojans quickly found their groove. USC cruised through the inaugural Anaheim Classic, in front of dismal attendance, I might add, throttling then-No. 18 Southern Illinois in the title game. Losses to Kansas and Memphis – by a combined eight points – were tough to swallow at the time but easier to deal with once every other Division I team not named Kansas or Memphis had at least one loss.

The Pac-10 season has provided a roller coaster ride as well. The Trojans started 0-3 in the conference after losses at California, at Stanford and against Washington State. Evidently that motivated the Trojans: USC won the next four conference games, including tilts at UCLA and at Oregon and now stand at 6-4. (The team’s only other setback was against the red-hot Arizona Wildcats last week.)

Hackett has been particularly impressive, becoming the clear floor leader and allowing Mayo to slide into a more comfortable off-guard position. In fact, we saw how much the Trojans need Hackett on the floor when a hip injury sustained in the early-going against Arizona caused him to miss the remainder of the game, contributing significantly to the ‘Cats’ victory at the Galen Center.

The Pac-10 will undoubtedly provide some rough times for the Trojans the rest of the way (road games at Washington State and Arizona and home dates against UCLA and Stanford are on tap) but the Trojans, like last year’s bunch, appear up for the challenge.

Sometimes, while lying in bed at night, Floyd might wonder “what if?” But, with the new pieces in his puzzle, Floyd doesn’t care.

His stomach certainly doesn’t. It’s feeling much better now.

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7 Responses to “Reloading, Part III: The USC Trojans”  

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  1. John Says:

    @ Christopher Mackinder. Yep this team is finding its stride. Too bad Nick Young left for the NBA early. If Mayo can find a good, consistent shooting rhythm, this team can at least reach the Sweet 16 again. I like Jefferson. He reminds me of Texas A&M’s DeAndre Jordan: loads of talent and potential, but has not progressed the way he probably should have. This team is a great defensive team. Anyone who can hold down Memphis and Kansas the way they did(plus they defeated Oklahoma) tells me they are already elite defensively. I find younger teams pick up defense a lot quicker than offense simply because they need to get used to each other, where to shoot, learn the system the coach is running and so on. Defense is about effort, positioning and commitment to playing it, because defense may not be on SportsCenter, but it can win you championships.

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  2. Christian Says:

    Has there ever been a team that has as much potential to reach the Final Four as it does to flame out in the first round? So Cal’s defense is solid but they struggle so much offensively at times that any good defensive team they might play in the first round (some possible examples based on projected seeding: Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ohio State, BYU, VCU) could shut the Trojans down.

    @ John – The way USC played Memphis and Kansas is pretty impressive. But when you factor in the way USC played against California and in both games against Wash State (terrible performances), it is tough to tell which Trojan team you’ll get on a given night.

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  3. John Says:

    @ Christian. They won’t be facing defenses in the NCAA Tournament like they are facing in the Pac-10. They’ll be more ”grown up” and offensively, they’ll be a whole lot better.

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  4. Christopher Mackinder Says:

    @ John:

    According to Kenpom.com, here are the Pac-10′s defensive numbers:

    Team (Conf) Raw (Rank) Adjusted(Rk)
    Stanford (P10) 88.4 ( 5) 83.9 ( 4)
    UCLA (P10) 91.2 ( 17) 85.8 ( 9)
    Southern California (P10) 93.1 ( 35) 86.8 ( 11)
    Washington St. (P10) 92.7 ( 31) 88.1 ( 17)
    Arizona (P10) 101.9 (179) 93.6 ( 59)
    Arizona St. (P10) 98.2 (100) 93.6 ( 60)
    Washington (P10) 100.4 (139) 94.3 ( 67)
    Oregon St. (P10) 102.8 (198) 97.7 (112)
    California (P10) 104.9 (251) 99.3 (137)
    Oregon (P10) 105.8 (273) 99.7 (145)

    (For those unaware, the statistics above show the number of points each team, on average, would allow if the opposing team had 100 possessions. The number in parenthesis is the national rank).

    Stanford, UCLA and Washington State (and the team of the hour, the USC Trojans) are phenominal defensively. After that, there is no team that plays lock-down defense. Arizona is solid defensively, but nothing to fear.

    Just as a reference, there are 8 Big Ten teams ranked in the Top 35 of defensive efficiency. So, if the Trojans locked up a No. 6 seed and say Ohio State (15th def. efficiency) was a No. 11 seed, there might be a problem.

    @ Christian: I’ll be the first to say this USC team is very, very dangerous. And while I wouldn’t trust my team with Tim Floyd calling the shots, he has done a great job with the Trojans this year. I see a semi-deep run (Sweet 16 or Elite 8) or a first-round flameout.

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  5. John Says:

    @ Christopher Mackinder. I take the numbers of the Big 10 with a grain of salt. They are a defense first league and don’t have a balanced team except Indiana.
    The Big 10 struggles against teams that can score(Wisconsin vs UNLV last year for example.)

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  6. Christopher Mackinder Says:

    @ John: I see that you’re a huge Big Ten fan (grinning). The Big Ten is a defense-first league but that still means that when a Big Ten team meets a team from another conference, its goal will be to slow the pace (see: Play very tough defense). There is a reason the Pac-10 is still known as an offensively glamorous conference. I do disagree that Big Ten teams struggle against teams that can score. UCLA and Texas are pretty solid offensive teams and the Spartans held each to 68 and 72 points, respectively.

    As far as Wisconsin goes last year, that was NOT the Wisconsin team that finished the season with 30 wins. When Brian Butch had the gruesome elbow injury against Ohio State toward the close of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin immediately lost most of its luster (That is the main reason the Badgers were a popular upset pick heading into last year’s tournament).

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  7. John Says:

    @ Christopher Mackinder. Alright, bad example. And i’m actually a Florida fan(grins wide.)

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