USC and coach Henry Bibby will try to extricate themselves from a two-year funk with a veteran roster. There will be six seniors at Bibby's disposal, all obviously experienced and all on schedule to graduate next spring.
Gaining a diploma in Pac-10 contention, however, might prove to be a bit more difficult. Bibby's program has been slowly regressing since its surprising run to the Elite Eight three years ago.
The goal is to reverse that trend with a group led by Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year Jeff McMillan and flashy guard Errick Craven, not to mention a strong new work ethic on defense.
"We're returning a lot of seniors, a lot of experience and a lot of starters, and it's their year to make something happen," Bibby said.
As usual, Bibby will have plenty of impressive athletes with which to work. The key, again, will be trying to assemble some sort of regular rotation, something the coach, with his strict disciplinary habits, has found difficult to do.
Craven and his identical twin Derrick return in the backcourt. McMillan will team with Nick Curtis and Gregg Guenther at forwards. Center Rory O'Neil has one last shot to live up to his potential. Another pair of identical twins, Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart, will push for playing time in the backcourt, as will junior college transfer Dwayne Shackleford and freshman guard Gabriel Pruitt.
Finding quality minutes for everyone won't be easy, but if Bibby follows form, all will get their chance.
FRONTCOURTMcMillan, the only Trojan to start every game last year, averaged 11.1 points and 8.6 rebounds and became the first USC player to lead the Pac-10 in field goal percentage (.630). After offseason surgery to repair a problem with his toes, he is expected to be even more effective.
O'Neil led the Trojans in blocked shots and 3-point shooting (.360) percentage and can play all three positions up front. But he tends to disappear at times and isn't always as aggressive as Bibby wants.
That's no problem for Guenther, the 6-9, 255-pound former tight end who gave up football to play basketball full-time. He's a natural leader who likes to throw his bulky body around in the paint.
Curtis has had his moments up front, but more often than not he's been slowed by injuries. Last year he missed six games with tendinitis in his left knee and never really was the same player after the injury.
Two freshmen could squeeze some minutes of their own. Nick Young, at 6-6, was good enough to draw interest from UCLA, Louisville, UConn and others. Emanuel Willis is also highly regarded.
BACKCOURTErrick Craven is a three-year starter who hasn't lived up to his considerable potential. "He needs to be more consistent," Bibby said. "It's up to Errick to see how good he wants to be."
Brother Derrick is an outstanding defender who started 11 games at the point last season. "I'm looking for Derrick to be our defensive stopper," Bibby said.
With Roydell Smiley, a solid offensive player, out again with a torn ACL suffered in a postseason pick-up game, the Stewart brothers will have to pick up the slack.
Lodrick was an All-Pac-10 freshman team selection, averaging 8.7 points per game -- and 13.2 over his final five. The problem is, he's a shooting guard like Errick Craven. Rodrick Stewart plays the point, and he'll share duties with Derrick Craven, if you can follow all these confusing twin possibilities.
FINAL ANALYSISNo one will feel more pressure this season than Bibby, whose future could depend on his ability to lead this team back into Pac-10 contention and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The raw talent is there, but gifted players such as Errick Craven and O'Neil have yet to demonstrate they can be strong, consistent factors for a full season. If that somehow changes, the Trojans could make things interesting with a team that figures to be built around McMillan, a legitimate Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate.
USC is expected to break ground on a long-awaited on-campus arena, the Galen Center, this fall. The projection calls for it to be completed in time for the Trojans to play games there in 2006. School officials think it will boost attendance.
"Maybe a new arena will do that," Bibby said. "Let's hope we're all here to see it."