USC basketball starts very early in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

The USC men’s basketball team will venture to Mazatlan, Mexico, over Labor Day weekend in hopes of figuring out how far it needs to go before its season opener.

Capitalizing on an NCAA rule that lets teams compete internationally once every four years, the Trojans are tentatively scheduled to play two teams from Mexico’s Professional National Basketball League.

The trip comes at an opportune time for USC, whose roster is undergoing major reshuffling after losing its top three scorers from the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Even a highly touted recruiting class that includes guard O.J. Mayo and forward Davon Jefferson will be hard-pressed to offset the loss of Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart, who averaged a combined 43.8 points.


The Trojans opened practice Wednesday in preparation for their trip to the resort town along Mexico’s central Pacific coast. Coach Tim Floyd had to bring back former walk-on Chris Penrose to conduct five-on-five drills because the team’s six-man freshman class can’t begin practicing until the first day of school on Monday.

USC will practice 15 times over 10 days before leaving Sept. 1 and playing in doubleheaders that evening and the following day at the 1,500-seat Lobo Dome on the campus of the University of Durango.

“We hope it will be a boost,” Floyd said. “We don’t know right now whether it will make us that much better, but any time you have a chance to practice you have a chance to get better.”

The Trojans are scheduled to play Caballeros de Sinaloa and Lobo Grises de Durango, though the matchups could change depending on whether the Mexican teams are still competing in the Independence Cup, a tournament that precedes their league schedule.

The teams are composed mostly of Mexican and American players. Caballeros de Sinaloa’s roster includes former Louisiana State guard Roland Lamont and former Georgia State forward Cedric Patton.

“I’ve got to assume that the talent level isn’t going to be very high, but that’s not why we’re going; it’s primarily the practice time that we’re able to garner,” Floyd said. “My guess would be that it would be probably junior-college-level talent without seeing them, because they’re best players are playing on the Olympic team right now and trying to qualify for the Olympics.”

Ernesto Chairez, a player on last year’s Caballeros team now working in its front office, described the team’s style as up-tempo and offense-minded.

“They run a lot,” Chairez said. “Games always start with half-court press [on defense]. If the game is close at the end, then it goes to full-court press.”

The trip was organized by former Cal State Fullerton assistant Rob Orellana, a sporting event planner who approached USC assistant Gib Arnold, a longtime friend.

“They said they were interested because they had a young group coming in,” Orellana said of the Trojans, whose roster includes 12 freshmen and sophomores.

Said sophomore guard Dwight Lewis: “It’s really a chance for us to grow and become more of a team. With all these new players coming in, we have a great recruiting class, but we don’t know how to jell yet with each other because they haven’t practiced with us yet.”

Orellana also organized trips this summer for Auburn, Baylor and Arkansas to play in Cancun. He said Auburn created a buzz in Mexico because fans were familiar with its football team.

Asked whether he expected Mayo to create similar enthusiasm, Orellana said he wasn’t sure the Mexican players and fans knew much about him.

“We’ve tried to transmit it in our e-mails to them,” he said. “I think they would be excited about something like that.”

Times staff writer Jaime Cardenas contributed to this report.