For USC, a brutal season was suddenly salvageable. A seven-game losing streak seemed like ancient history, as did those lonely walks back to Heritage Hall so many players had experienced after being kicked out of practice.
Despite a losing record, their first in five years, the Trojans had run and gunned their way to the cusp of earning an automatic NCAA tournament berth.
It was early in the championship game of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and No. 7-seeded USC, which already had upset Stanford and California by playing a selfless brand of team ball, had grabbed a seven-point lead over Oregon. The Ducks, their ticket to the NCAA tournament already stamped, were on the verge of checking out.
"It allowed us to realize that, 'Hey, we can play. We're not that losing team that we showed all season. We can win ballgames. We can beat quality teams,' " Trojan junior center Rory O'Neil said this week.
"It also showed us what we could do when we played together, play as a team. That's the whole reason we made that run in the [Pac-10] tournament, because we played together as a unit instead of [as] five individuals."
But the game did not have a happy ending for the Trojans. Oregon regrouped and USC regressed, the Ducks eventually building a 17-point second-half advantage and holding on for a 74-66 victory.
Still, the experience served as inspiration for a more mature team as it enters a new season tonight at Western Michigan.
"We wasted a whole year with superfluous aspirations and influences that really didn't mean anything," junior guard Errick Craven said. "We have the tools, we've just all got to play together. It's easier said than done. We still at times, even me, I go one-on-one and stuff like that."
A more altruistic approach on offense and stronger efforts in rebounding and on defense could be the difference between the Trojans' enduring another subpar season or returning to the NCAA tournament.
The numbers would seem to favor USC rejoining March Madness.
The Trojans, picked fifth in the Pac-10 media poll, are the only team in the conference to return the equivalent of five starters -- O'Neil, Errick and Derrick Craven, senior guard Desmon Farmer and junior forward Nick Curtis.
USC returns a league-leading 85.4% of its scoring and 73.7% of its rebounding. But does that guarantee success, especially when that production is coming from a team that went 13-17 overall and 6-12 in Pac-10 play, and the only holdover from the team that made an Elite Eight run in 2001 is the electric yet enigmatic Farmer?
Trojan Coach Henry Bibby is not so sure.
"We were really a bad defensive team and I still don't think we've bought into the defensive scheme of what we're trying to do this year," said Bibby, who replaced departed assistants Damon Archibald (Iowa State) and Kurtis Townsend (Miami) with Mike Johnson (UC Irvine) and Marvin Menzies (San Diego State). "We're like starting over again with our defense.
"Everyone wants to score, everyone wants to play offense. The good teams play defense and rebound. There's no glamour in that unless you're Dennis Rodman, getting 25 rebounds a night. I'd like to see selfish play on defense, 'I'm going to stop that guy, I'm going to stop the weak side.' "
Rebounding may be the Trojans' weak link early on. Curtis has been hobbled by tendinitis in his left knee, senior center Jonathan Oliver is academically ineligible through the fall semester and junior power forward Gregg Guenther is busy starting at tight end for the No. 2-ranked USC football team.
USC's answer at power forward is 6-8, 260-pound junior Jeff McMillan, who is eligible after sitting out last season after his transfer from Fordham.
"That's real solid for us because we were missing that last year," Farmer said, "that post guy, that banger down there."
Still, Bibby has been experimenting with a four-guard lineup.
And the three freshman guards USC brought in -- Quinton Day and twin brothers Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart -- all figure to play.
"I'm very impressed with the new people," Bibby said. "The way they're playing now, it's tough to keep them off the floor."
If they mesh well with the returners, it would be hard not to imagine the Trojans on the floor again in an NCAA tournament game come March.
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DERRICK CRAVEN (Guard) -- No. 24, 6-2, 215, junior: Craven, who learned the point guard position on the fly last season, winning a three-man race and playing in every game, again will compete to run the offense, with freshmen Quinton Day and Rodrick Stewart. Though he's a stopper on defense, Craven must improve his shooting from the field (37.6%) and free-throw line (55.2%).
ERRICK CRAVEN (Guard) -- No. 22, 6-2, 205, junior: The elder of the Craven twins (by one minute) last year became the first player to lead USC in rebounds (5.3), assists (2.6) and steals (2.5), and his career steals average of 2.3 ranks second in Pac-10 history to Jason Kidd's 2.5 average. Still, Craven's three-point shooting fell from 32.4% as a freshman to 26% last year and he shot 18.2% in two exhibitions this month.
NICK CURTIS (Forward) -- No. 2, 6-8, 225, junior: Curtis started strong last season, recording three double-doubles in his first 11 games while leading the Pac-10 in rebounding. But tendinitis in both feet slowed him significantly and the same ailment in his left knee kept him sidelined for both exhibition games. His health and rebounding will be huge keys for the Trojans this year.
QUINTON DAY (Guard) -- No. 44, 6-0, 175, freshman: The only true point guard on the roster, Day averaged 20.2 points, 5.0 assists and 6.0 steals as a senior at Kansas City's Paseo Academy. A national top-80 player who was twice named the city's player of the year, Day chose USC over Nebraska, Minnesota and Saint Louis after leading Paseo to the state final.
DESMON FARMER (Guard) -- No. 33, 6-5, 220, senior: The spiritual leader of USC, Farmer sometimes needs to harness his on-court emotions even if he is slighted at times. Despite averaging 20.4 points in Pac-10 play -- the first Trojan to average at least 20 points since 1992 -- he was left off the 10-player all-conference first team. He was among 52 players invited this summer to try out for the U.S. Pan Am Games team but did not make the final cut.
GREGG GUENTHER (Forward) -- No. 4, 6-8, 245, junior: Guenther, the starting tight end on the football team, has joined the basketball team after USC's bowl game the last two years and given the Trojans some much-needed bulk in the paint. He had four double-doubles in a five-game span in the middle of the conference schedule last season and his return will strengthen USC's depth in the post.
JEFF McMILLAN (Forward) -- No. 5, 6-8, 260, junior: Known as "Tank," McMillan brings a physical presence to the post that USC has missed since Sam Clancy departed. McMillan, a transfer from Fordham who was not eligible to play last season, had 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes of the Trojans' final exhibition. He had been slowed by a broken left foot in the summer.
JONATHAN OLIVER (Center) -- No. 10, 7-0, 230, senior: Oliver is academically ineligible through the fall semester and his return should shore up the depth of the Trojan big men, even though he struggled to meet expectations last year. An all-state center at Ventura College as a sophomore, Oliver averaged only 2.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.8 minutes a game in his first year at USC.
RORY O'NEIL (Center) -- No. 21, 6-11, 240, junior: A two-time attendee of the Pete Newell Big Man Camp, O'Neil came on strong in the Pac-10 tournament, averaging 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in the Trojans' three-game run to the title game. He is almost automatic from 10 to 12 feet, but although he set a school sophomore record with 38 blocks, he is not an overpowering physical presence in the post.
ROY SMILEY (Guard) -- No. 1, 6-4, 195, senior: The Trojans' injury-plagued gunner, Smiley made 40 three-pointers and converted 84.4% of his free throws last season. His broken left leg, suffered in the Pac-10 tournament title game, has healed, but a painful left ankle has him considering season-ending surgery and taking a medical redshirt.
LODRICK STEWART (Guard) -- No. 3, 6-4, 210, freshman: The elder of the athletic identical twins, by four minutes, Lodrick, a left-hander, was a 2003 McDonald's Preseason All-American alternate and averaged 19 points and six rebounds while helping lead Seattle's Rainier Beach High to its second consecutive Washington state title. He averaged 16 points in USC's two exhibitions.
RODRICK STEWART (Guard) -- No. 23, 6-4, 200, freshman: Rodrick, the right-handed Stewart, raised some USC fans' ire when he chose to wear Harold Miner's old number. But Rodrick, a Parade Magazine third-team All-American, already has impressed hard-to-please Coach Henry Bibby, who has noted his leadership qualities. Stewart, who averaged 18.8 points and eight assists as a high school senior, started both of USC's exhibitions at the point.
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USC AT A GLANCE
Last season: 13-17 overall, 6-12 Pacific 10 Conference.
Finish: Tied for sixth in conference, advanced to the title game of the Pac-10 tournament as the No. 7-seeded team, defeating Stanford, 79-74, and California, 79-62, before losing to Oregon, 74-66. It was the second consecutive season the Trojans had advanced to the title game but the first time they had finished with a losing record since 1998.
Coach: Henry Bibby, eighth season, 116-94.
Who's gone: Players Brandon Brooks, Kostas Charissis, Jerry Dupree and Robert Hutchinson; assistant coaches Damon Archibald and Kurtis Townsend.
Who's new: Guards Quinton Day, Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart and forward Jeff McMillan; assistants Mike Johnson and Marvin Menzies.
Projected starters: Guards Rodrick Stewart (18.8 points, 8.0 assists as a high school senior), Errick Craven (13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds) and Desmon Farmer (18.7 points, 4.8 rebounds), forward Jeff McMillan (10.2 points, 7.6 rebounds at Fordham in 2001-02) and center Rory O'Neil (10.1 points, 4.9 rebounds).
Keys to season: Defense and rebounding, who's going to do it? The Trojans, who led the Pac-10 in offensive rebounding (15.5) and steals (9.2) last season, are depleted down low by injuries to still-healing McMillan and Nick Curtis and the delayed arrivals of the ineligible Jonathan Oliver and football tight end Gregg Guenther. USC will also have to use the experience it gained in its Pac-10 tournament run to close out opponents -- it had second-half leads in nine of its 12 conference losses last year. Better shooting (USC's 41.7% from the field ranked ninth in the league) and better shooting defense (45.3%, also ninth) would help as well.
Outlook: Had the Trojans actually won the Pac-10 tournament and made some noise in the NCAA tournament, they might have been considered league favorites, what with all the returning production. As it is, USC is primed to surprise some people and can gain confidence during a less-than-enthralling nonconference schedule, despite a lack of healthy big men. "There's an urgency," O'Neil said. "... The more we win in preseason, the closer we are to 20 wins, which is traditionally the number it takes to get in the NCAA tournament." How quickly the returners and newcomers mesh will go a long way toward determining the Trojans' fate.