USC Hoops Preview

Over the next few weeks DevilsDigest.com will endeavor to bring you a comprehensive breakdown of the upcoming 2003-2004-basketball season in the Pacific-10 conference. The sixth part of this multi-part series looks at the USC Trojans.

USC Trojans (Los Angeles, California)
2002-03 Record: 13-17 (6-12)
Postseason: None
Returning Starters: 5
Head Coach: Henry Bibby (eighth season)

Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starter(s) in BOLD)

PG: Rodrick Stewart, 6-4, 200 Fr. (third-team Parade AA; 3-A Washington State HS POY)
SG: Errick Craven, 6-2, 205 Jr. (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.5 spg, .407 FG%)
SF: Desmon Farmer, 6-5, 220 Sr. (18.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, .401 FG% .303 3PT% .828 FT%)
PF: Nick Curtis, 6-8, 225, Jr. (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, .459 FG% .675 FT%)
C: Rory O'Neil, 6-11, 240 Jr. (10.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .443 FG%, .366 3PT% .720 FT%)

Key Returning Reserves:

Derrick Craven, 6-2, 215 Jr. (4.6 ppg, 2.3 apg, .376 FG% .438 3 PT% .552 FT%)
Roydell Smiley, 6-4, 195 Sr. (8.6 ppg, .389 FG% .345 3PT% .844 FT%)
Gregg Guenther Jr., 6-8, 245, Jr. (6.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .434 FG% .641 FT%)
Jeff McMillian, 6-8, 260 Jr. (redshirted in 2002-03 after transfer from Fordham)
Jonathan Oliver, 7-0, 230 Sr. (7.8 minutes per game)

Key Losses:

Robert Hutchinson (5.1 ppg, 2.4 apg in 20.5 minutes per game)
Brandon Brooks (4.5 ppg, 3.5 apg in 15 minutes per game; lost after 10 games to injury)
Jerry Dupree (5.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg in 14.4 minutes per game)

Recruiting Class:

Rodrick Stewart, 6-4, 200 Fr. (Rainier Beach HS, Seattle Washington)
Lodrick Stewart, 6-4, 210 Fr. (Rainier Beach HS, Seattle Washington)
Quinton Day, 6-0, 175 Fr. (Paseo Academy, Kansas City, Missouri)

Recruiting Class Grade: B+

The Stewart twins, Lodrick and Rodrick, are as strong and athletic as any pair of guards coming into the Pac-10, perhaps the nation. Rodrick, right-handed and slightly smaller than his brother, is a lead guard – someone who has worked hard over the last two years to become adept at being a team's primary ball-handler; a job he'll be given a chance to do at USC immediately. Lodrick is left-handed and more of a true wing guard and free-shooter. Both will be high-impact college players, with Rodrick likely to play more significant minutes early on due to positional needs of the Trojans and the fact that he may be slightly more polished at this juncture. Quinton Day signed in the spring period and is a prototypical college point guard. He looks to pass-first and is very quick with the ball in his hands, capable of breaking down defenses and being a pesky on-ball defender. He is the only "true" point guard on the roster.

Team Overview:

Many in the Los Angeles-area are still scratching their heads over how last year's version of the USC Trojans men's basketball team stumbled out of the gate and eventually wound up with a losing overall record and a dismal 6-12 finish in conference play.

Hard-driving USC coach Henry Bibby's 2002-03 squad experienced an inordinate number of difficult and distracting issues ranging from an unusual frequency (even for Bibby's teams) of players being kicked out of practice, to game suspensions, to costly academic transgressions and even a career-ending injury suffered by point guard Brandon Brooks.

While the Trojan family is no stranger to these sort of occurrences with Bibby at the helm, a coach who seemingly invites and indeed, often incites controversy, last year's near-endless string of incidents was too much for even him to manage and the team struggled mightily.

In a bit of good fortune however, almost all of the principle interests from last year's squad are back, and ready to make amends. The lone exceptions are point guards Robert Hutchinson (eligibility) and Brandon Brooks (injury) and the oft maligned forward Jerry Dupree, who has been dismissed due to academics.

The leading returning member of the Trojans is undoubtedly Desmon Farmer, a senior wing guard/forward who was honorable mention all-conference a year ago. Farmer is a scorer and streak-shooter who has the ability to go "lights out" and take over a ball-game with his ability to put the ball in the basket from almost anywhere on the floor when he's running hot. He is a solid ball-handler, aggressive almost to a fault, and an above-average defender and rebounder when he wants to be.

Farmer's primary running mate on the wing will be Errick Craven, the conference's most prolific thief, leading the Pac-10 in steals in each of his first two seasons at USC. Errick Craven reads passing lanes as well as anyone and he loves to run the break at any and every opportunity, primarily with the ball in his hands. He is a scorer, like Farmer, and rebound as well as any guard in the league.

Craven's twin, Derrick, started most of the team's games last year at the lead guard position and it's a role he's fighting to keep this year in a battle with freshman Rodrick Stewart. Both Derrick Craven and Rodrick Stewart are physical, athletic guards that love to push the basketball up the floor and score. Neither are great shooters but Rodrick Stewart probably has the edge in this area. It is likely that Bibby will start both of them at times this year, but look for Rodrick to eventually be the guy on the floor more often when it really matters, deep into the season.

Coming off the bench on the wing are two very talented options – senior Roydell Smiley, a smooth player who may have the best pure stroke on the team and played quite well last season in a significant reserve role and freshman Lodrick Stewart, a flamboyant, freakish athlete who suits the frenetic pace favored by Bibby.

The Trojans are so deep and talented on the wing that Bibby has given serious though to starting a four-guard lineup which would likely consist of Farmer, Errick Craven, either Rodrick Stewart or Derrick Craven, and either Roydell Smiley or Lodrick Stewart. At the very least, this quick, athletic and undersized lineup will be something that Bibby uses in some situations early in the season.

Primarily, the four-guard lineup is being given so much attention due to a lack of healthy and/or available frontcourt bodies at Bibby's discretion at the start of the season. Transfer Jeff McMillan, once-thought to be the most likely candidate to start at the power forward position has a foot injury that has been slow to heal and consequently drawn the ire of his coach. McMillan is a big, strong post player who should eventually be extremely complimentary on the court with Rory O'Neil, a skilled center who enjoys facing up and taking his defender out onto the perimeter, where he has terrific touch.

The other candidate to start alongside O'Neil, at least early in the season is Nick Curtis, a player who is more of an outside-inside combo-forward than McMillan. Curtis has a nice skill set and a versatility to his game that has made him someone whom Bibby counted on to start quite a bit in the past, especially early last season before he battled nagging foot injuries that he still may not have completely behind him.

USC should get two other frontcourt options back in January. Gregg Gunther Jr., the team's most reliable power forward late in the season a year ago, also plays tight end on the football squad. With the Trojans likely headed for a late bowl game this season, he might not return until the second or third week of Pac-10 play, but eventually he will challenge for starter's minutes.

A player whose return is less likely than Gunther Jr. but still a strong possibility is Jonathan "Gizmo" Oliver, who is suspended from competition this semester due to academics but could return in late December should he meet certain classroom requirements.

Look for the Trojans to take some time feeling their way through the early portion of the season until they get all of their components back and on the same page. Bibby favors a tenacious man-to-man defense but is one of the more effective defensive strategists in the Pac-10. He will show no hesitation to go into a zone, a match up zone or even more of a gimmick defense and he'll switch things up at a moment's notice. His primary objective is to keep opposing offenses off-balanced and unable to establish rhythm, create as many turnovers and easy scoring chances as possible and push, push, push the ball offensively.

Interesting Factoids:

-Henry Bibby has two new assistants: Marvin Mendes, former head recruiter at San Diego State and Mike Johnson from UC Irvine…The Trojans essentially return 6 legitimate starters, with only Gregg Guenther Jr. starting less than 50% of his overall games, but 8 out of 14 conference games; Nick Curtis started more than 50% of his total games played, but less than half of the conference games in which he participated…Desmon Farmer led the team in scoring last season in 15 out of 19 conference games played including the first-round Pac-10 Conference Tournament loss…The Trojans went 4-6 in Pac-10 games decided by six points or less…Guard Errick Craven is the team's leading returning rebounder from league play a season ago…USC has 45 more turnovers than assists on the season…Errick Craven has led the Pac-10 in steals in his first two seasons, averaging 2.5 last year alone… Farmer was honorable mention all-conference…Rory O'Neil and Nick Curtis both attended Pete Newell's Big Man Camp this past summer…USC has approved plans and finalized funding for a new 10,500-seat on-campus arena to be named the Galen Center.

Best Case Scenario:

Jeff McMillan gets healthy and is able to give USC a solid low-post presence and a hi-low post option that works alongside Rory O'Neil, as well as tough interior defense and an added body on the glass. The Trojans are able to shore-up leadership and continuity issues at the point guard position, via either a more mature Derrick Craven or dynamic freshman Rodrick Stewart. Henry Bibby enjoys a year of greater off-court stability with the help of veteran leadership from all-conference performer Desmon Farmar and the Trojans push as high as third in the Pac-10.

Worst Case Scenario:

USC struggles to find a consistent lead guard capable of driving the team's success with crisper, more intelligent play on the court. Frenetic pace of team's play promotes costly mental mistakes and allows less talented teams to stay close and even steal ballgames they have no business winning. Self-orientation causes the glut of perimeter talent to become restless, even detrimental to team's chemistry and cohesion. The Trojans struggle to pair O'Neil with a healthy frontcourt mate who compliments his strengths and Bibby's squad underperforms dramatically, missing out on post-season play for the second consecutive year.

Outlook:

Desmon Farmer felt slighted last year after missing out on all-conference honors, and deservedly so. Expect Henry Bibby to continually remind Farmar of his opponents' coaches' refusal to vote him onto the squad and prod him to provide a rebuttal on the hardwood this season. Rodrick Stewart is so energetic and aggressive that, when combined with the synergy of Errick Craven and Farmar, inevitably will make the Trojans one of the more combustible teams in the nation. They will, at times, lose games they should win because of this, but more regularly it will be a boon for the Trojans, as well as make them one of the more fun teams to watch in the West.

Pac-10 Prediction: 10-8
Postseason Play: NCAA "bubble"

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