USC Week: One-On-One With Kevin O’NeillPosted by AMurawa on July 5th, 2012
Kevin O’Neill took over the USC program in the wake of Tim Floyd’s abrupt resignation in June 2009.The instability within the program caused USC to lose much of its 2009 recruiting class, but O’Neill helped that team – playing without the hope of a postseason berth due to fallout from the Floyd era – keep it’s head above water, finishing with a 16-14 record. The following season, the Trojans were able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, claiming a spot in the initial First Four, but last season the team was torn apart by injuries and recorded a program-worst 6-26 record. This year reinforcements arrive and folks around the USC program think they could be due for a big bounce-back season. As part of our week-long look at the Trojan basketball program, we had a chance last week to talk to O’Neill as he looks forward to 2012-13.
Andrew Murawa: Obviously last year was one of those Murphy’s Law kind of years. Despite all of the bad luck and losses, are you able to find any silver lining in an otherwise bad year?
Kevin O’Neill: You know, once Jio (Fontan) got hurt in Brazil it all sort of fell apart. You kind of have to go back a couple of years. When we took over the program, there were no freshmen or sophomores – we lost two classes completely and we were able to piece it together with six guys per year for the first two years. And we knew we had to avoid injury for the third year. And then everyone got hurt. And once everybody got hurt, we didn’t have enough talent or enough players or enough depth. We had played without depth for two years and had been fortunate to avoid injuries, but it just caught up with up with us last year. But, it will make us appreciate this year a whole lot more.
AM: You did get some guys plenty of experience last year. Maurice Jones, for one, was forced into a pretty extreme role last year, playing a ton of minutes, having the ball in his hands a lot and probably taking more shots than he ever expected to take in his college career. With all the firepower you are getting back this year, is he looking forward to getting back to more of a normal role?
KO: Yeah, he and Byron Wesley both, what it did was it gave them unlimited minutes and they played as many as they could play. I think he’ll be more effective with less minutes – I think most players are – and with the people he’s going to have around him, it won’t force him to be the main scoring threat, because we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things.
AM: Byron, yeah, he was excellent towards the end of last season there, not only scoring but – you know, most freshmen don’t relish defending immediately, but he was a great defender almost right away last year.
KO: Yeah, he was.
AM: How high is his ceiling?
KO: You know, this guy can be about as good as he wants. He’s used his offseason to really, really work hard. And we have our whole team here and they’re all in summer school and practicing twice a week an hour at a time – they just started that last week – and Byron has improved every single day since the season ended, just because he’s been working so hard. I think he’s going to be a very, very good player – a big time player.
AM: Jio comes back for his belated senior year. I know he was dying sitting out last year, but is there any way that a year watching the game from the sidelines could be a blessing in disguise for him?
KO: Yeah, I think it gave him a different perspective. Players have one perspective, but when they’re forced to sit and watch an entire season and with all he’s gone through, it probably makes him appreciate his abilities and the fact that he can play now that’s he’s healthy. He can appreciate his role and his situation a lot more. And he’s really the heart and soul of our team. He’s our glue guy. He’s gonna be as good a point guard, as good a lead guard as there is gonna be in the whole country.
AM: Last summer you called DeWayne Dedmon a future lottery pick. Despite his up and down year last year, limited by injuries, is his game progressing the way you expected it to?
KO: Last year was a total learning experience for DeWayne. I never thought he’d be a draft pick last year – I thought it was either this year or next year, as he’s got two years left. He’s made big-time strides. He’s another guy that’s worked hard every single day to get better. You know, he was hurt three times last year. He broke his hand, his knee got screwed up, he had an ankle problem. So, just the time in practice and the fact that he’s gotten a feel for this level is going to help him tremendously.
AM: Going back to Jio for a second, you mentioned he was the heart and soul of your team. I got the impression that he was doing a little coaching from the sidelines there last year.
KO: He tried. He tried to be a leader, but it is just awful hard to lead when you are not playing. And the guys we did have playing were so young, they ended up being all freshmen and sophomores. Everybody was new last year. When Jio went down we ended up returning nine points and three rebounds. This year, between the guys who were hurt, the guys who were sitting out and the guys who are coming in, we’re returning 102 points of Division I experience. So, we’ve got depth for the first time, we’ve got numbers and we’ve got experience. So, we plan on Jio tying that whole thing together for us and leading us on the floor.
AM: You’ve got an awful lot of firepower on your roster this year.
KO: We do.
AM: You struggled to put it in the hoop last year.
KO: We did.
AM: Doesn’t seem like that will be a problem for you this year.
KO: You know, we’re going to be able to play an entirely different style of play. We’re now capable of being a transition team. We’re still going to be a set play team on dead balls, but we’re going to press a little. We’ve got some numbers and athleticism that can help us do more things offensively.
AM: You got Eric Wise, J.T. Terrell, Ari Stewart and Renaldo Woolridge all newly eligible transfers this season. Do you have a good idea what type of roles each of those guys will play for you, or is that something that is still to be determined?
KO: It will be determined in practice, but you know, Eric Wise has gone from 280 pounds to 230 pounds and he’s a guy that can play multiple spots, he’s a proven scorer and rebounder and he’s gonna be good for us. Ari Stewart is an excellent shooter and good athlete. J.T. Terrell is just a straight talent; he’s very talented and can do a lot of things, so those guys will add a tremendous amount to our teams.
AM: And then, how about the freshmen? Do you expect any of them to contribute at all for you this year?
KO: Well, we’ve got three guys who are all very good players. Strahinja Gavrilovic from Serbia is gonna be a really, really good player. Brendyn Taylor is a guy who is athletically on par with anybody, but just needs experience. And then we picked up a walk-on, Chass Bryan, from Oaks Christian, a point guard, who we think is going to be a good player for us down the line and a guy who can contribute later in his career.
AM: Compared to your previous years at USC where you’ve had, you know, maybe seven guys, this is quite a change for you.
KO: Yeah, what I’m telling my team is that we’ve got 14 starters.
AM: Not just that, but this may be your most gifted offensive team. How excited are you for this year?
KO: Oh man, we’re very excited. It is going to be great.
AM: Okay coach, thanks for your time, I look forward to seeing you guys this year. Good luck.
KO: All right Andrew. Thank you. Take care.