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Saturday, December 10, 2011
Basketball: Not a rebuilding year, yet

By Pedro Moura

New Mexico is the break, really.

Kevin O'Neill's USC Trojans (4-5) have a two-week break between stretches of four games in eight days and three games in five days. The only thing breaking up the break is Saturday's 4 p.m. matchup against the visiting New Mexico Lobos at the Galen Center.

Finals, lasting until Wednesday the 14th, are the reason for the time off. But the Trojans are trying to use it to their advantage. They'll get one last week of preparation before Pac-12 play begins later this month, but this is the last chance until then they'll get to reset their season and start anew.

"It is an important time," O'Neill says, simply, mentioning the road-heavy schedule USC embarked on in the early part of the year and the tough opponents the Trojans will play later this month in TCU and No. 13 Kansas. During this time, he wants to focus on his team getting better in one area: defense.

That's not to say defense is USC's weakness. It's actually arguably the team's biggest strength. Rather, O'Neill wants the Trojans to focus on defense because he realizes that the team's other areas of struggle -- free-throw shooting and 3-point shooting, namely -- are not things that are going to be shored up suddenly.

It's like this: Either you spend your time working on something you know can get better with time, or you take a gamble and try to get lucky with the other stuff. O'Neill's picking the former, not the latter, even though his team's shooting a miserable 59 percent from the free-throw line and 29 percent from 3.

"It is what it is," he says. "We're pretty good defensively, for this point in the season. I like a lot of the things our guys have done."

Other things he likes include a low amount of turnovers and better rebounding. The Trojans' assist numbers are low, but their 13-turnover average isn't terrible. And Aaron Fuller's team-leading rebounding numbers have been important, although he's been bothered by some nagging injuries this year.

Another player nagged by injuries: forward Dewayne Dedmon, who was supposed to be out right now with a stress injury in his foot. Instead, he returned quickly and plans to play against New Mexico.

All of this, of course, could lead to speculation that the rest of this season is a sort of try-out for next season -- a rebuilding season, if you will. But O'Neill squashed any talk of that.

"I'm not thinking that at all," he said Thursday after the Trojans' two-hour practice. "I'm thinking we're gonna be a postseason team.

"We're planning on trying to play after the season's done."

Key players for Steve Alford's New Mexico team include guards Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, both Southern California natives, and forward Drew Gordon, he who once went to UCLA. The fourth scorer is a 6-2 guard named Demetrius Walker who was long the country's No. 1 player as a teenager.

The Lobos have reeled off four straight wins over the likes of Washington State and Boston College.