It is rare when one can use the terms cheap and good in the same sentence. Tonight, however, the USC men's basketball team provided the opportunity. In front of a nowhere near capacity crowd, playing a never will be final four opponent the Trojans managed to raise the roof of a dilapidated Sports Arena and muscle out a win.
It has become clear the Henry Bibby has, for better or worse, finally put his thumbprint on the Trojan basketball team. Because for the first time, in recent memory, the boys in Cardinal and Gold are playing patient, methodical basketball. They are measuring out their opponent the way a prize fighter works through the first rounds of a bout, identifying what punches will work and which might open the door to a knockout. They are also coaching themselves while they play, thinking, strategizing and building confidence in the system.
The system is no longer just get the ball to Sam. It is tempting to do nothing else then dish it to the big man and watch him do his magic. Clancy is quickly proving to be the best power forward in the league. Tonight was his third double-double in a row, scoring 18 points and pulling in 12 rebounds. This man, among boys, can hit the fall-away, the three, slam from the top of the key, and rebound, man can he rebound. He can also martial an offense, when needed. He is a leader. And he will go down as one of USC's best players. But what allows him to do all this and be so great, is a pretty solid surrounding cast.
Last year, the USC basketball team's fortunes seemed to rise and fall with Point Guard, Brandon Granville. Brandon went through some serious growing pains, learning the lesson of ball control during SC's loss to Duke in round of eight. SC had numerous opportunities to win that game and most rode on Granville's shoulders. He came up short and so did SC's March run. But, with that pain came maturity. Tonight that growth was evident in Brandon's ball management. USC has itself one of the better point men in the league. He will lead us to many a victory while also teaching his successors, on and off the court, what it is to win at the game. Brandon had only one turnover all night, played flawless defense in both man and zone and was able to drain important free throws in the clutch, as well as answer with a pair of needed three's.
Another senior, how had his first start this season, is Small Forward, David Bluthenthal. There have been comments that David has been out of sync with the rest of the club, shooting poorly and falling short on his normally outstanding rebounding. Tonight, however, after a slow start Bluthenthal got hot, hitting five second half three's. The kid was money and his outside shooting opened up the lanes for Clancy to clean up the garbage underneath.
So these three, joined by a bevy of talented freshmen comprise the 2001-02 USC Trojan basketball team. And as good as the upperclassmen are, it is the freshmen who are the ones to watch. O'Neal, Craven and Dupree are the future of the program. They appear to be as physically gifted as any incoming group Bibby has recruited. Granted, they play like freshmen, spurts of brilliance marred by moments of mayhem, but the brilliance is there. Craven's ball handling will be a delight for years to come. O'Neal's frame needs some pounds, but he's an agile big man and will quickly take charge underneath. He also has a nice touch on his shots, which will be a weapon for the Trojans when opponents choose to double Clancy. Dupree's rebounding and pure hustle will win SC more games than not. He has the ups of Trepangier and once he is seasoned will be a thrill to watch. He and sophomore Desmon Farmer must have met prior to the season and decided to make an ABA style fashion statement. Because of the matching headband, gold knee-high socks, and all out hustle on the court, it can be tough telling these young b-ballers apart. Farmer, as a lefty, must have the most unusual shooting release witnessed in a while. The arc of his ball imitates Sandy Koufax's best screw ball and it's always a guess as to whether it's going to drop or not. But with that said, Desmon is guaranteed to bring a spark to the Trojans every time he takes the floor.
Tonight, against the Gauchos, a spark was definitely needed as SC quickly found itself behind by twelve, with zero offensive boards nearly 14 minutes into the contest. UCSB's squad was draining threes, hustling for boards and moving the ball well. This is a talented club and it is no wonder they are rated #1 in their league. The Gauchos are going to 2001 what Northridge was to the 2000 season. The only difference might be that Santa Barbara has a bench that can play.
Behind by twelve, Bibby finally switched from zone to man and that was the key ingredient to getting the Trojans back into the game. Anyone who has watched SC basketball recently will confirm that Henry Bibby loves defense. He has built a reputation for a mixed man/zone that has coaches from around the nation calling for this recipe. It is that defense that carried SC to the Elite 8 last year and should do the same for the Trojan's this year.
Once in man, the Gauchos struggled to keep up and by the end of the first half, SC had taken it's first lead. The swing was so dominating that it appeared the Trojans would run the court for the second and remaining half. That, however, was not the case. SC went cold to open and Santa Barbara continued to drain the outside shot. In a matter of moments, the Gauchos were back up by eight and ready for more. That's when Henry unleashed the hounds. Clancy began the run with a monster slam, then a power drive to the hole where he literally carried his defender with him on the lay up. This monster effort underneath opened up the outside and David Bluthenthal was ready to answer. He was nearly automatic, aiding the Trojans in hitting 8 of 14 threes in the final ten minutes of play. Both O'Neal and Craven added their own master works with some nice defense and dishes. Farmer put the game in the icebox with a three from outside and then Granville shut the door with his own shot from downtown.
By the end, the score made it look like SC coasted to victory, but that was hardly the case. Eventually, yes, the Trojans took control but with under two minutes remaining they held only a 6 point lead. And that was almost cut in half when UCSB put up a three that literally went in and somehow came back out. Clancy grabbed the board and with it, the game.
At the beginning of this piece I stated that cheap and good rarely go together. SC is good, cheap entertainment. For those who love the Lakers, but don't always want to flip the 200 dollar bill, coming down to watch the Trojans could be the perfect compliment. Afterall, the Trojans have their own dancers, courtside is an easy get and the show on the floor is filled with as many thrills as any NBA game could hope to provide. And SC has one other secret ingredient no pro team could hope to offer - the Song Girls. Gentlemen, start your engines, the USC basketball season has begun and if it goes as it currently appears, won't end until late March. Get on the wagon early. It's going to get crowded.