I had never been to the University of Southern California campus. I've been to Los Angeles, many times, recruiting, but I'd never played against their teams or been here. I didn't even interview here. The first time I walked on campus was for the press conference. Going into the press conference, I was still learning about USC. I didn't know it was a private school; I thought it was a state school. I'll never forget. I was having my press conference, and there were probably about 15 people in the varsity lounge for the press conference when I left. And as I was leaving, probably 250 media people came rushing in. I thought, "That's strange, what's going on?" It was Matt Leinart making his announcement whether he was going to stay or leave. I walked outside and there were 3,000 students outside chanting his name. I heard this loud roar from outside and I thought, "Boy, there's some passion here. But we still have a long way to go."
And I found that out after I went to my first practice the next day and counted only four people who would be on the next year's team. And this was off of the last place team in the Pac-10. And I saw that practice and I thought, "You know what, I don't need to coach this team." I'll let the interim coach coach the team, because I'm going to be better served out recruiting and trying to bring in some players to build a program. So Jimmy Saia kept the team and I went out on the road 71 out of my first 77 days on the job. And everybody was gone. They'd all signed in November. Every top player in the state of California was gone. 119 of the top 120 players in California had already signed by November. I found the same thing to be true in Texas, and Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, Florida. We were literally looking under rocks for players to get to a point where we could practice that first year and try not to be too committed to those players, because the guys that we left late were, at best, marginal for this level.
So, we signed four kids, made short-term commitments to two other players, one-year commitments to Keith Wilkinson and Collin Robinson. We ended up keeping Keith and put him on a long-term agreement. We lost Jeremy Barr and Sead Odzic to transfers and playing time. We lost Ryan Francis to a tragic death. We were able to keep RouSean Cromwell and now we've lost all four of those guys who were returning, in Pruitt, Young, Stewart and Shackleford.
So now they're all gone, other than Cromwell and Wilkinson, from that first team. So we're literally starting all over again this year. It seems like every year has been a transition year. The first year was just trying to get ten guys so we could practice. The next year, we lost our backcourt (Ryan Francis through a tragic death and Pruitt through academics) to where this year, we're losing two guys to the NBA and our top three scorers. All that being said, I've never been as excited at any other job that I've been at. We feel great that we were able to establish some level of credibility last year. It's been great that we've got this level of mystique about us, as to why all these great players want to come to SC. I feel great about having the finest college basketball facility in the country. And we feel like the future is bright.
(On living in Los Angeles)
I'm very comfortable in this city. We love the weather, like everybody else. We love the fact that we have options, when the basketball season is over, we can look around and say let's go do this, let's go do that. There's so many different entertainment options and dining options and destination options within a short travel from our home in Santa Monica. We love the institution and what it stands for. I thought the corniest thing I'd ever heard when I got here was when they kept talking about this family that we had and I'd been at several other universities and I said, look they're all the same. But they really believe it, they mean it and they live it and I've gotten caught up in that and the traditions and the band and I really don't want to coach anyplace else. This is where I'd like to finish my career.
(On last season)
I believed in our talent. I didn't want to sell the program short as far as what all the prognosticators picked. I think they picked us eighth our first year and sixth our last year. But our guys had never learned how to win and I'm not sure they believed they could. They'd say the right things, but I'm not sure they really believed they could. I think a real turning point for us, as a program, was in Las Vegas, a loss we experienced to Kansas State, in a tournament prior to Christmas. I've never been as down in my career because I just didn't feel like these guys were getting it. I think they expected us to have a late-night film session after a very emotional post-game talk and I know they certainly expected a very difficult practice the next morning prior to a game that night against Wichita State, who was ranked #8 in the country. And we did neither. We ignored our team until an hour and a half before game time. We benched several players. I talked about how great they were, but I was tired of being the only guy in the room who believed it. I was tired of guys not sacrificing, of guys not thinking about the other guy, only thinking about themselves. And for whatever reason, with the likes of Keith Wilkinson and some other guys who started that night, we made a tremendous turn and it carried over into our next game with Washington, which we won in double overtime. And then a close loss to a terrific Washington State team. Then a great win at Oregon against a team who was 13-0. But I felt like that Wichita State game was the point where I said, we've got a chance. And we started learning how to win and how we needed to play and we started getting better. And by the end of the year, I felt like we could have played with anybody in the country.
(On the Galen Center and having a home-court advantage)
It wouldn't have happened without the facility, even with our team's success. It wouldn't have happened. People had grown tired of the sports arena. There were some great times there, but people had grown tired of it. It had gotten to the point where they believed their facility was inferior and they needed more. The newness of the building created an intrigue. People had to go see it for the first time. They wanted to wait until the Pac-10 season started. The Pac-10 opener happened to be against Washington and it was a thrilling game, a double-overtime win. They came back for the Washington State game and saw a thrilling game where we led with four seconds to go. And I think in the process of coming to see the arena, just out of curiosity, they fell in love with the team and fell in love with the fact that our guys were playing hard and they felt a part of our success, because I believed that for the first time since I'd been here, that we truly had a home-court advantage. And they felt it. The students created it wearing their yellow shirts on the baseline. And they got vocal and the old people like me started standing up and clapping in return, which we never saw in the sports arena. And our hope now is to get a carryover effect and take that into next year.
(On next season)
We're losing more scoring than anybody in the Pac-10. That being said, I have great expectations. We have players returning that I think are capable. We have players that we've added that I hope live up to their expectations. It'll be a process as far as learning how to win at home, and learning how to win on the road in non-conference, and learning how to win in conference at home and away, because we're going to be relying on so many new players at key positions. But we scheduled not with our youth in mind, but with the future of the program in mind, that we're trying to build a national level program and one that our fans are proud of, and one that players want to play in. And to do that, I think the schedule is important. And we're opening our season next year in our non-conference with games at South Carolina in a return game, with Memphis on a neutral floor in the Jimmy Valvano Classic in New York, which will be a nationally televised game. We come back home and we have Kansas, Oklahoma and it looks like Florida, who we just added. Then we have a made-for-TV tournament in Anaheim where we're going to be playing the featured game at 8:00 every night for three straight nights against a team from the Big-10, the Big East, SEC and Big-12. So next season, we've taken on more and may arguably have the best schedule in the country, with a team that may be the youngest in the country. But we're thinking about down the road as much as we're thinking about next year. And again, we won't sell this young team short, because I feel like if we can grow up in a hurry, we'll have enough talent to play.
(OJ Mayo and his recruitment)
I think maybe he understood what was going on with me better than I understood what was going on with him because I've been in this business so long and I literally worked less for OJ coming here, who's the best player I've ever recruited, than with any other player I've recruited. And that includes guys who were 12th and 13th men trying to convince them to come. He was trying to convince me that we needed him, which was very refreshing. And it's why I'll embrace him when he comes in here, because he didn't put me through all the pain that I've gone through with countless others in what sometimes can be a very emotional recruiting session that you go through with every kid. And I want to hug him when he comes in here just because I feel like, my god you're a mature young man who knows what you want and you're not afraid to be different, and has a belief in this coaching staff and this university and this city in terms of what it can do for you. And thanks for recognizing it and we look forward to coaching you.
He came in here on his visit, you'll love this. I mean, I love everything about him, from a coach's standpoint. He comes in here on his visit and we go to a dinner. He's trying to be socially interactive with his student host, I forget who. It may have been Gabe and Nick out with us that night. But he's trying to carry on conversation. He's a little socially awkward because he's spent his whole life in a gym, you know? He comes over to me after the meal and he says, coach do you have Rob's number? Rob's my manager. I said, "Yeah I got it." He asked for it and I said yeah. So Gabe and Nick wanted to take him out on the town after the meal, but he asked them to take him back to campus. He meets up with Rob and goes up and shoots in the gym from midnight until 3:00 in the morning on his official visit. I love that stuff. I love it. I've never been around a guy like that. That's why he's got a chance to be great. You're right though. He's going to be picked apart and scrutinized. Oh he's not as good as they say, but we'll just see as his career plays out. I think he's pretty good.
(On some other members of this season's recruiting class)
This little guard we signed was really important with Gabe looking at the draft. Angelo Johnson, he's a good little player. He went to Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley and played with Mamadou (Diarra). We kept going over to see Mamadou and we said, "This kid can play for anybody in our league." Nobody really sees him because they don't play a high school schedule. They're a prep school and there's no prep schools in the west, so they have to go back east to play, so there's no buzz about all these guys out there at Stoneridge. But this kid is a pretty good player; he really is. He's got some talent, so I'm excited about him. We're going to be so darn young. You figure at least three freshmen out there. Maybe not, maybe two. Maybe Daniel, Dwight and Taj, OJ and Davon. Could be Mamadou and Taj and Davon off the bench.
Mamadou Diarra at 6'11, was pre-season ranked #20 in the country going into his senior season. He's 6'11 245 pounds and different, in that he's not only strong, but he can run as well as anyone on our team. I saw him play a prep-school game; he had seven 3s in the game. And he can post up as well, so he gives us another option with Taj and Davon Jefferson, to play bigger.
And then the sleeper of the whole class is a kid from Louisiana, by the name of Marcus Simmons, who may be our finest athlete and may be our hardest playing player and may be our best defender, may be the best perimeter rebounder and a guy who gives us other options.
A kid that people have not talked about much is Davon Jefferson, who is a tremendous talent. He was one of the two best players at his position coming out of high school. He's 6'8 225 pounds who can play on the floor. He's very talented. He gives us options.
As to where OJ plays, it'll depend on what our team needs are. If Angelo Johnson is as good as we hope he can be, then we'll be able to utilize OJ as a scorer during stretches. If Angelo, for some reason, is not ready to go do it, we'll be able to use OJ at the point. But given the fact that we're losing so much scoring with Nick, Gabe and Lod, I can see situations where we have Angelo, Daniel, Dwight and OJ maybe on the floor at the same time. Or Daniel playing the point and OJ at the two. We can go a lot of different ways.
So with all that being said about who we lost, I remain encouraged about the potential to exceed expectations. Before Nick and Gabe declared, we've been ranked as high as number five in the country going into next year. I'm certain that will drop, but we're going to shoot for the moon with this group and hope that we can be better than what others may project.
(On Taj Gibson)
I believe Gibson has a chance to be as good as any player in the country at his position, with the added strength, given the year of experience that he had last year and some of the games that he had last year. I'm thrilled with his ability to rebound the ball, his coachability, his instincts, his knowledge of the game. He's unique for an inside guy in that he can face up and shoot it, he can face up and beat you off the dribble, but he can also play with his back to the basket and can rebound. He has to get stronger. He made the right decision to come back to school. He plans on being here all summer to continue to work on his game and his game will grow as a result. He'll get better. He did well academically and we're real proud of him and arguably he had as big of an impact on winning as anyone on our team last year.
(On vocal leaders next season)
Taj doesn't say much. Daniel does, but you can't understand him because he's from Italy. But he's passionate. He has a chance to be. But I have a sneaking hunch that OJ will be the vocal leader. He's never taken a back seat to anybody. You talk about leadership. He's going to demand that guys play. He's a different, unique kid. He's bright as hell.
(On Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt in the draft)
You hope for the best, that they make decisions that won't affect the rest of their lives. They're jumping into a pool and you just hope that there's water in it when they jump in. Nobody can really determine how deep that pool is and how much water is in it until you get to draft day. There's a lot of idle promises, a lot of guarantees a lot of false mock drafts. Go back and check the success of the experts and their mock drafts for the NFL draft. Every decision that people should make in their life comes down to risk and reward, and my own personal belief is that there's 20 more available first-round picks in this draft than in next year's draft, given the numbers of people who have come out early this year. With that, I think that's the risk that both these players have to embrace as they go out. In Nick's case, we feel like he's a guaranteed first rounder, and that being the case, probably should go. In Gabe's case, we remain hopeful that will be the case.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.