Checking in with ... USC
Despite losing top two scorers, the Trojans enter the season ranked No. 18
Unlike previous seasons, coach Tim Floyd finally has a deep roster
Point guard Daniel Hackett appears ready to emerge into primetime player
LOS ANGELES -- During casual conversation over lunch or in his office, USC coach Tim Floyd comes across as a laid-back good ole boy who loves that he can walk into any restaurant in L.A. without being recognized. Once practice begins, however, Floyd dramatically tranforms into a stalking, dyspeptic, Nicorette-chomping old crank. "Would you all get out and run hard, please?" he asked, exasperated, during a Trojans' workout at the Galen Center last week. "Christ, we got two of the best frickin' athletes in the country out here. Y'all say you want to run, well dang it, run!"
Which is not to say he's altogether humorless. A few minutes later, Dwight Lewis, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, fired a no-look pass at 6-7 freshman Leonard Washington. Only Washington wasn't prepared for the pass, and the ball caught him flush on the nose. The kid went down in a heap, and while the other USC players looked on with concern, Floyd could be heard cackling loudly from the other side of the gym. "Go get him! He's done!" he shouted cheerfully. As Washington got up slowly and walked towards the bench, Floyd sidled up to him and quietly said, "You know why that happened, don't you? You didn't sprint back and the basketball gods were watching. They punished you."
I suppose it's easy to have a sunny disposition when you live by the beach and the temperature rarely dips below 70 degrees, but Floyd has other reasons to be of good cheer. Last year, his Trojans entered the season having lost their top three scorers from the previous season, yet they still went 21-11 and finished tied for third in the Pac-10. Now, they've lost their top two scorers (O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson), yet they were ranked 18th in the Associated Press' preseason top 25 poll. To Floyd, the former Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets coach who is now in his fourth year at USC, that is a sign the program is standing on a solid foundation. Somewhere, the basketball gods are smiling.
"I think [the ranking] shows that maybe we're arriving more as a program that might be able to last as opposed to one that's good every four or five years," Floyd says. "We're getting help from outside through our recruiting, we have good players returning, and I think we have a chance to be pretty good. I really like this team."
The main reason Floyd is so sunny-side up is that USC finally has some depth. Last year, when starting point guard Daniel Hackett missed three games because of a back injury, USC had no scholarship guards in reserve. (In their first game without Hackett, four of the Trojans' five starters played 40 minutes.) Now, beyond the starting backcourt of Hackett and 6-5 junior Dwight Lewis, Floyd has three quality guards he can summon off the bench -- though it should be noted that two of those guards, 6-6 senior Marcus Johnson (a transfer from UConn who becomes eligible in late December) and 6-6 sophomore Marcus Simmons, have been dealing with nagging injuries this preseason. (Simmons had surgery on his foot in the offseason and Johnson has a bulging disc in his back.)
Also, for the first time in Floyd's tenure at USC the Trojans have both depth and a nucleus of experienced players. Hackett, Lewis and 6-9 forward Taj Gibson are juniors who have 154 career starts between them. As sophomores, they combined to average 27.2 points and 17.0 rebounds. That means that unlike last year, when Mayo was forced into a primary scoring role as a freshman, Floyd will not have to rely on 6-7 freshman swingman DeMar DeRozan, a consensus top-five player in his class, to produce a ton of points right off the bat.
Speaking of DeRozan, while I am always careful about drawing definitive conclusions from a single practice, I have to say he was rather unimpressive during the two-and-a-half-hour workout I witnessed last week. If you had walked into the gym without knowing anything, you would never have picked DeRozan out as a great prospect. I saw him play enough while he was in high school to know how dynamic he is, but his nondescript performance was a healthy reminder that even the best freshman is still a freshman. DeRozan is two years younger than Mayo was when he entered college, and he is not going to excel in the kind of halfcourt game the Trojans were working on in practice. (Indeed, DeRozan led all scorers with 29 points in the Trojans' run-and-gun, public intrasquad scrimmage on Oct. 26.) Floyd is confident his freshman will get better as time goes on, but in the meantime the coach can depend on quality vets to carry the load. That's quite a luxury.
One final observation from practice: You probably know that Floyd gave a scholarship to Percy Miller, a 5-11 freshman from Beverly Hills who is better known as Li'l Romeo, the actor and hip-hop artist who has sold more than 1.5 million albums and starred in multiple movies and TV shows. (He is also a serial endorser, as Floyd found out one day when he bought a bag of potato chips at a store near his lake house in Mississippi and looked down to see Miller's face on the bag.) Miller clearly would not have warranted a scholarship to a Pac-10 school if he weren't close friends with DeRozan, whom Miller played with on an AAU team coached by Miller's dad, the rapper/entrepreneur Master P. But let me tell you, Li'l Romeo is not a bad player. He's quick, he has a good handle, he can shoot, and he's in wicked shape. His size prevents him from being effective at this level, so I doubt he'll get any serious playing time. But I've certainly seen worse players at the end of a team's bench.
Having a gazillionaire entertainer on the roster can make life, well, entertaining. On the weekend of the USC-Ohio State football game, Floyd hosted more than a dozen of the nation's top recruits. He assigned each of his players to "host" one or more of the high schoolers. NCAA rules allow a coach to give his players $30 for each recruit they host. So before Miller, who drives a $300,000 Mercedes Maybach, took two of the high school kids out for the night, Floyd handed him three $20 bills. "What's this for?" Miller asked.
"It's hosting money," Floyd said. "I'm allowed to give you thirty bucks per player."
Miller waved his hand and said, "Don't worry about it, coach." That had to be the first time in history a college athlete turned down free, legal cash.