USC vs. UCLA and the story of Noah's Ark

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
5:12
PM PT
Leave it to USC Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill to call on the Bible to try to reach his team in advance of Sunday's home game against UCLA.

O'Neill, the Trojans' third-year coach finding himself under pressure to win now because of his team's disappointing 5-12 record, was conducting the final 15 minutes of a mid-week practice in preparation for UCLA and looking for a new way to practice shooting.

So he gave his struggling team a quick pep talk at mid-court of the upstairs practice courts at USC's Galen Center and spread them out for two-man shooting drills on the six available baskets.

In seconds, he realized the explanation he had given wasn't sufficient.

"Alexis!" he shouted from across the gym at freshman point guard Alexis Moore as he walked to one end of the court with Maurice Jones to complete their portion of the drill. "Have you heard of Noah's Ark?"

Moore looked at Jones, puzzled. Walk-ons near them snickered. Eyes went back and forth between O'Neill and Moore.

"Yes," the 18-year-old Moore said, unsure whether to laugh or look seriously at his head coach known to have a temper.

"What was it?" O'Neill asked, and the two exchanged responses until O'Neill grew satisfied that Moore -- and his teammates, from listening -- knew enough about it to let the drill go on.

His message: In the story of Noah's Ark described in the Bible, all the animals had to board the vessel in pairs to keep themselves safe and give each other company. O'Neill wanted his players to do the same for what has become the tough task of shooting this season.

"I wasn't sure our guys would know what Noah's Ark was," O'Neill said afterward, laughing when asked about his little lesson. "I bet if I'd asked some of them, they wouldn't have known.

"We were just trying to get into paired shooting, so I thought, Noah's Ark, they did things by pairs."

So did the Trojans -- on Thursday, at least. Moore and Jones spent the next several minutes taking jumpers inside the 3-point line before O'Neill concluded practice.

"At first I was a little confused as to what he meant," Moore said afterward. "But I think the biggest thing about that is that it shows he wants us to stick together as a team.

"It's been a hard road so far. But this isn't the time to get down on ourselves. He just wants to make sure that we keep the same level of chemistry that we've had all year."

It's been quite the hard road. Among 344 Division I schools, the Trojans are tied for 310th in field-goal percentage (.399) and are the lowest major-conference school on the rankings. They're also 341st in scoring at 53.9 points per game.

And now, after starting Pac-12 play 0-4, the Trojans play crosstown UCLA, who many experts picked to win the league at the start of the year. Ben Howland's Bruins started off the year badly and dropped starter Reeves Nelson midway through the season but rebounded last week against the Arizona schools to move to 9-7.

Of course, UCLA has played the majority of its home games about a half-mile away from the Galen Center at USC's old home court, the Los Angeles Sports Arena -- an added challenge the USC head coach is sympathetic to.

"I think they're really good," O'Neill said. "Keep in mind that these guys haven't played a home game all year. All their games are either neutral or away, and I think that's a really difficult situation."

Despite his comments about center Josh Smith, O'Neill said the Bruins' front line was as talented as any in the country, "other than maybe North Carolina."

Notes: O'Neill said injured forward Aaron Fuller would "try to play" against UCLA. Sidelined with injuries to both shoulders, Fuller sat out the second half of Sunday's loss to Arizona and did not practice at all this week. ... Two-thousand Harold Miner bobbleheads will be given out to fans at Sunday's game -- 1,000 of them to students. Miner, a former USC star and NBA player, is scheduled to be honored before the game.

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