Sunday, November 19, 2006

PROGRESS AND PERSPECTIVE - USC BASKETBALL


USC's ascension under Tim Floyd was tragically interrupted in the offseason when point guard Ryan Francis was shot and killed in his hometown of New Orleans. As if that weren't enough, SG Gabe Pruitt (right) flunked out of school after the MySpace affair, rendering him academically ineligible until 2007. With Francis and with Pruitt for a full year, this was a likely NCAA Tournament team. As it stands, the Trojans are probably still a postseason team, though they're likely to sit squarely on the bubble come March.

Good News: USC returns its three leading scorers: Pruitt (16.9 ppg, 2.2 steals per game), F Nick Young (17.3 ppg/6.6 rpg) and G Lodrick Stewart (12.3 ppg). Abdoulaye N'diaye returns at center (5.3 ppg/4.7 rpg) is a sound defender in the paint at 6'11". Floyd is a terrific coach who has been the perfect tonic for a program that had become fractious and frankly lazy under Henry Bibby. Defense is now a strength in South Central, as SC held 11 consecutive opponents under 70 points last year. Gone are the mental lapses that characterized SC in the Bibby Era.

Bad News: Like last year, the Trojans could struggle on the boards. N'diaye hasn't shown strong rebounding instincts, and last year the Trojans often ran a small lineup that failed to produce second and third chances. The key player for SC might be true freshman Taj Gibson (6'9"/210), who has looked very good in the early going. Another contributor is RouSean Cromwell, who missed the 2nd half of the season in 2005-6 with a fractured foot - Cromwell also had off-season knee surgery, but has been cleared to play. USC is also very thin - only two other returning players who played in more than ten games last year.

New Faces: Lots - In addition to Gibson, the Trojans have seven new players, of whom several will see playing time in 06-07. Dwight Lewis should add athleticism and depth as a backup to Pruitt, though he'll start early.

Prediction - Fifth place. This is a difficult team to figure. We think the world of Floyd and are convinced that SC is heading in the right direction. The Trojans may struggle early without Pruitt, and they lack a true point guard. If Gibson makes the D-1 adjustment smoothly, and Floyd finds some quality depth, then this team could rise as high as 3rd. Conversely, they could drop to #6 if they revert to being a team of talented wings without a meaningful inside presence. In any event, things will only get better with uber-recruit O.J. Mayo on his way to LA for the 2007-8 season.

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