It’s 6 a.m. when the USC men’s basketball team begins practice.
The sun hasn’t risen. The freeways aren’t gridlocked. The Trojans, however, are hard at work, getting ready for the 1988-89 season.
Coach George Raveling says that the early-morning sessions, a first for his team, have worked out well.
“I think they’re sharper in the morning,” he said. “Their girlfriends and professors haven’t had a chance to upset them yet. I have their undivided attention at 6 a.m. And so far, nobody has been late. It’s been a real plus.”
The Trojans haven’t had many pluses since Raveling replaced Stan Morrison after the 1985-86 season.
Raveling had winning teams at Washington State and Iowa, but his USC teams have lost 40 of 56 games in the last 2 seasons.
The Trojans finished last in the Pacific 10 in Raveling’s first season and ended in a 3-way tie for last place last season. They set a school record by losing 21 of 28 games last season.
Will the heat be on Raveling when the Trojans open their season Friday afternoon against Delaware at the Sports Arena?
“I don’t think anybody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself,” he said. “In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you that I’ve had more than five critical letters since I’ve been here.
“I’m realistic enough to know that that’s what you get hired for--winning. I’m smart enough to know that Dr. (Athletic Director Mike) McGee and Dr. (USC president James H.) Zumberge want results, but I can’t go out and coach a team coaching scared. I’m not going to do anything differently.
“As long as McGee and Zumberge don’t panic, we’ll be fine. And I don’t see any signs that they are. I think they understood that it was going to be a struggle to start with.”
Said McGee: “He stepped into a situation that required some long-term decisions and he has made those in keeping with our expectations that the basketball team will show improvement.
“We firmly believe in Coach Raveling. I think the basketball team is going to show progress.”
Other Pac-10 coaches say Raveling is doing a good job.
“I think probably things were a little rougher than he thought they were going to be,” Washington Coach Andy Russo said of Raveling. “He’s a good guy and I’m sure he’ll make it.”
Raveling’s regime began to unravel when USC lost three freshmen who were upset that they hadn’t been consulted before a new coach was hired.
Tom Lewis, the Trojans’ leading scorer in 1985-86, transferred to Pepperdine, and Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers left for Loyola Marymount--before Raveling had coached his first game at USC.
Gathers and Kimble were Loyola’s leading scorers as the Lions won 28 of 32 games last season. And Lewis made the all-conference team as Pepperdine advanced to the National Invitation Tournament.
‘I haven’t said anything (about the departure of the three players) because I promised Dr. McGee and Dr. Zumberge that I wouldn’t,” Raveling said. “But we basically wouldn’t have had 2 straight losing seasons if those three guys hadn’t left.
“The minute those kids left, I realized my work would be cut out for me. But I believe that we can get it where everybody thinks it should be, with a little patience.”
Raveling is trying to rebuild his team’s self-confidence.
The Trojans compiled a 7-2 record on a trip to Brazil last August, while Raveling was away serving as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
“The thing I keep trying to remind this team is that they’re 9-2 since last year,” Raveling said. “They were 7-2 on the Brazil trip against pro teams and they won 2 exhibition games (against the Czechoslovakian national team and the El Toro Marines). So they’re 9-2. And I don’t let them forget that because I want them to view themselves in a positive manner.
“What transpired last year is history. Right now, as I keep telling them, ‘You guys are off to a great start.’ ”
Although the Trojans are again picked to finish last in the Pac-10, there are indications of improvement, although perhaps not immediate improvement.
For next fall, Raveling has recruited what may be USC’s best freshman class since the Trojans signed Lewis, Kimble and Gathers in 1985.
The Trojans got three players during the early signing period--Harold Miner, a 6-foot 4-inch guard from Inglewood High, and 6-8 forwards Keith Greeley of La Sierra High in Riverside and Sean Zone of Furr High in Dallas. USC has 2 more scholarships available.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen in 27 years of coaching,” Raveling said of Miner. “He’s a versatile player who can play three positions.”
He won’t be helping the Trojans this season, though, so they will be hoping that last season’s players have learned. Nine of them, including four returning starters, are far more experienced than they were.
“Last year, we looked like five guys who chose each other up in a pickup game,” Raveling said.
Raveling has already settled on a starting lineup--guards Duane Cooper and Anthony Pendleton, forwards Ronnie Coleman and Chris Moore, and center Chris Munk.
Coleman, a 6-6 sophomore, will be the focal point. He was voted the Trojans’ most valuable player and most improved player last season, and earned Pac-10 all-freshman team honors. He was the leading scorer in the Trojans’ exhibition games, averaging 22.5 points.
“We’ve got to get the ball to Coleman,” Raveling said. “We’re going to keep a (shooting) chart on him so that we don’t defense him ourselves.”
The front line of Coleman, Moore and Munk should be the team’s strong point. Munk, a 6-9 junior, was one of the top rebounders in the Pac-10 last season, and Moore, a 6-8 senior, was the Trojans’ leading scorer.
USC’s fate, however, may depend on the backcourt. Cooper, a 6-1 sophomore has replaced Dave Wiltz, who graduated, and Pendleton, a 6-4 junior, beat out Andy Olivarez to earn the starting spot at off guard. Pendleton shot 68.4% in USC’s exhibition games.
After opening the last two seasons on the road, USC has also arranged an easier nonconference schedule this season.
They will play their first 5 games in the Southland this season, opening with 4 at the Sports Arena before playing at Cal State Long Beach.
“Our schedule is better balanced this year,” Raveling said. “It’s more realistic. It’s very important to our confidence to win those games (Delaware, Howard, Portland and U.S. International).