O'Neill, USC counting on returning talent to lead rebound year

by | College Basketball Insider
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O'Neill is optimistic about a Trojans team stacked this season with experienced, healthy players. (US Presswire)  
O'Neill is optimistic about a Trojans team stacked this season with experienced, healthy players. (US Presswire)  

Kevin O'Neill is a different breed. While every other coach in the country dons school names across their chests during the all-important July recruiting period, Southern California's head man throws on whatever ordinary T-shirt is stuffed in his suitcase. He's the guy who has no filter for what comes out of his mouth, one who is adored by many of his colleagues for his candor and despised by others for that same honesty.

O'Neill is one of a kind -- and that's why I wasn't all that surprised when he told me about his new plan while we were sitting in Las Vegas watching summer basketball.

I was telling him about my dream of sorts, to move to San Diego for the next year and maybe beyond. It's unlikely to happen, but certainly living on or near the beach sounds far more pleasant than dealing with the winters in Boston.

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That's when K.O. informed me of his new housing situation.

"We're moving out of our downtown place and going to Coronado," he said.

Seriously?

"Seriously," he said.

The 55-year-old O'Neill and his wife have decided to move more than 120 miles away to the gorgeous peninsula about five miles away from downtown San Diego.

"I'll leave at either 4 a.m. or 11 a.m. and come back home about 8 p.m.," O'Neill said. "I have four hours total to make phone calls and I won't hit any traffic at that hour."

That won't be the only major change for O'Neill this year. His Trojans could go from the cellar of the Pac-12 toward the top of the league.

"Last year was brutal," O'Neill said. "Brutal. I thought I'd been through everything until last season."

He puts it right there with the 5-25 campaign he endured back in 1999-2000, his final season as the head coach at Northwestern.

But this year will be different. He'll enjoy life down by the beach and also have the luxury of bringing back 108 points per game. Yes, you heard right. Last season, he had just nine points per game returning once Jio Fontan went down with a season-ending knee injury. It wasn't just Fontan who was lost, either. Dewayne Dedmon suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the season, Aaron Fuller had shoulder surgery in January and missed nearly all of Pac-12 play, Evan Smith played in just four games and Curtis Washington (shoulder) sat out the entire year.

O'Neill has turned the page on last season and is optimistic about this year's team.

"We'll be good," he said. "I'm just not sure how good."

He says that Fontan is the lone sure thing as far as starters are concerned. "[There are] 12 guys [who] could start," he said.

But one guy that should be a front-runner to log major minutes is former Wake Forest guard J.T. Terrell, who spent last season in junior college after being booted from the Demon Deacons in 2011. The entire Trojans staff has been gushing about Terrell thus far in preseason workouts.

"He's very talented," O'Neill said. "He's a big-time scorer."

There is a pair of D-1 transfers eligible: Another ex-Wake player, Ari Stewart, who averaged 8.5 points as a sophomore in the ACC, and Eric Wise, who put up 16.3 points and 8.1 boards in the Big West at UC Irvine two years ago. There's also the addition of Renaldo Woolridge, who was a role player at Tennessee and will have one year of eligibility for the Trojans this season.

Virtually everyone is back: Diminutive junior guard Maurice Jones, who led the team at 13 points per game; redshirt senior Fuller, who averaged 10 points and five boards before the injury; sophomore Byron Wesley, who nearly averaged double figures; and Fontan and the cast of newcomers.

"USC will be the surprise team in the country," one coach told me. "In fact, they could pull a worst-to-first [season]."

The nonconference schedule is somewhat daunting for a coach who might need a postseason berth (he certainly needs to avoid another 1-17 league mark) to solidify his job status. There are road games at New Mexico, Dayton, Georgia and Nebraska, a trip to the Maui Invitational and home contests against San Diego State, Minnesota and Long Beach State.

"We play people," O'Neill said. "Guys lose NCAA bids because of their schedule. Our schedule gives us a chance. If we win 19 games, we're going."

If O'Neill wins 19 games, living on the beach in San Diego, he can where whatever T-shirt he wants in July.

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