USC's chances of competing for the Pac-10 title will dramatically increase if North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson wins an appeal to play this season without sitting out a full year because his father, Art, has been ill.
Stepheson's mother, Diane, told ESPN.com Monday night that her son officially chose the Trojans over UCLA and Arizona State. She said there had been premature reports out earlier this summer that he had already selected USC. Diane Stepheson said the decision wasn't easy at all and he decided on USC after a "long and careful analysis."
Diane Stepheson said her son through USC will apply for the waiver immediately. The fall semester starts later this month. Diane Stepheson said her son left North Carolina because "my husband has been ill and I too have had had health issues."
The NCAA has set a precedent the past two seasons of allowing players with a family health issue who transfer closer to home to play immediately. Tennessee's Tyler Smith won his appeal after transferring from Iowa last year and played for the Vols last season. Georgetown's Julian Vaughn received a similar waiver to play this season for the Hoyas after transferring from Florida State. The NCAA hasn't given the appeal to players who are simply transferring because of a coaching change. The school that is releasing the player has had to endorse the player playing immediately, too.
North Carolina likely wouldn't fight Stepheson's case and would likely support it considering the Tar Heels were open in their May 16 news release that Stepheson needed to transfer closer to his Los Angeles home for a family health concern.
Stepheson was an impact reserve on the Tar Heels the past two seasons. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Stepheson averaged 14.5 minutes, 4.3 points and 4.5 rebounds for the Tar Heels. He scored in double figures in two NCAA Tournament games against Mount Saint Mary's (12) and Arkansas (10) and averaged six points a game during Carolina's Final Four run. He was the Tar Heels' defensive player of the game in wins against Arkansas in the second round and Washington State in the Sweet 16. With the return of national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson up front, playing time would have been an issue for the Los Angeles native again next season had he stayed.
If Stepheson can get eligible for this season, the Trojans would have a formidable frontline. Stepheson would join all-Pac-10 power forward Taj Gibson up front. The Trojans, who did lose freshman O.J. Mayo to the NBA, return starting guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis and are expecting an infusion of production from highly touted small forward Demar DeRozan as well as immediate contributions from power forward Leonard Washington. Washington was nearly eligible last December but needed another semester to make it to USC after finishing high school the previous spring.
USC is expected to be picked behind UCLA and Arizona State in the Pac-10 next season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.