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Rough season almost at a close

3/4/2012 - USC Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- After capping off one of the worst regular seasons in the history of the USC men's basketball program, losing 19 of their final 20 games, Kevin O'Neill's Trojans (6-25 overall, 1-17 Pac-12) will head into the conference tournament as the No. 12 seed and likely first-round fodder for the No. 5-seeded UCLA Bruins.

But Pac-12 fans hoping to rejoice in the downfall of a USC program that had put together a small streak of NCAA Tournament berths had better put their party plans together quickly, because the celebration could be fairly short lived.

The 2011-12 USC Trojans set a school record for losses in one season. By the end of the year, they were suiting up just six scholarship players -- two true freshmen, two true sophomores and two junior college transfers. If not for bad luck, this team would have had none at all.

It began in August, when sophomore forward Curtis Washington suffered a shoulder injury and eventually underwent season-ending surgery. An August exhibition trip to Brazil seemed like a great way to get a young team experience before the season. The scheduled itinerary did not include a season-ending injury to guard Jio Fontan, the unquestioned leader of the team.

From that point, the USC roster turned into a baseball manager's lineup card after a 19-inning marathon.

Forward Evan Smith? Scratched. Smith injured his shoulder and played in just four games before missing the rest of the season.

Forward Aaron Fuller? Scratched. Fuller was averaging 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game before eventually undergoing shoulder surgery due to an injury that occurred before the season began.

Center Dewayne Dedmon? Scratched. On the same day as Fuller's surgery, Dedmon tore his MCL and eventually underwent surgery.

On the sideline and unable to help were transfers Eric Wise and Ari Stewart, who came over from UC Riverside and Wake Forest, respectively, but were forced to sit out this season due to transfer rules.

The Trojans fought hard with their drastically undermanned and undersized lineup, drawing praise and sympathy from conference coaches.

Sophomore point guard Maurice Jones led the team in points, assists and steals per game and led the conference in minutes played per game. With Jones forced to carry the scoring load as well as handle point guard duties, the workload wore on him quickly, and he never could develop an offensive rhythm that compared with his freshman season, when he was able to team with scorers Nikola Vucevic and Fontan. Jones shot just 34 percent from the floor, 67 percent from the line and 30 percent from 3-point range.

One of the bright spots from the season was true freshman guard Byron Wesley, who closed the year strong, establishing career highs in points in three of the final four games of the season, topping out with a 23-point outing against Washington on Thursday.

But when the injuries struck, it became the same sad story each game for the Trojans, as they occasionally struggled to score 20 points in a half. And O'Neill was unable to do any editing, as a lack of bodies didn't allow for any strategic maneuvering. That likely won't be the case next year.

USC doesn't graduate a scholarship senior and could field one of the most talented lineups in the conference next season, provided Fontan is granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA. The 2013 season also could mark the first time O'Neill will be able to turn to his bench with some regularity. Even dating back to Tim Floyd's days at USC, it has been routine for the Trojans to employ a six or seven-man rotation, perhaps best highlighted by a 2008 loss to UCLA, where four USC starters played all 40 minutes and the fifth played 32.

While there are no guarantees for a deeper bench next season, it would be surprising if it is not the case.

Stewart and Wise should be impact players up front, joining Dedmon and center James Blasczyk, as well as incoming freshman forward Strahinja Gavrilovic, a 6-foot-8 power forward who could have a chance to play right away. It also will be interesting to see what kind of impact Zach Banner might have on the basketball team. Banner signed a letter of intent to USC on a football scholarship but is a solid basketball player and has been assured that he will be able to go out for both sports. At 6-foot-9 and more than 300 pounds, Banner certainly will offer some size inside.

The backcourt would receive a huge boost with the return of Fontan, while Jones likely will look like a different player next season with much of the figurative weight removed from his shoulders. But perhaps the most intriguing addition will be transfer guard J.T. Terrell, who spent one year at Wake Forest and one year at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash. Terrell was second on the team in scoring at Wake Forest and led Peninsula with 25 points per game this past season. And that's what he'll be asked to do at USC.

O'Neill said before the season that any group he leads will play good defense. That proved to be true, as USC finished among the top 30 teams in the nation in scoring defense. But at the other end of the court, the Trojans struggled, finishing near the bottom of the country – No. 343 out of 344 teams -- with 53.0 points per game.

The 2012-13 season likely starts next week for the USC Trojans, and after being forced to watch one of the most unfortunate seasons in program history, the warm-up warriors -- Stewart, Wise, Fontan -- will be looking for payback against conference foes that gladly took advantage of their absence. Injuries turned this into one of the ugliest transition years in memory. But the way O'Neill has shaped his roster for next season could have USC fans flocking to the Galen Center for what the Trojans hope turns into a beautiful bounce-back season.

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.