Trojans can play the spoiler and salvage some pride

Times Staff Writer

Motivational speakers, send material to the USC men’s basketball team, care of Coach Kevin O’Neill. He’s in need of ideas that will keep his tattered team pushing forward — because it’s going nowhere, except to the desert and back.

Win or lose, tonight’s game at Arizona State and Saturday’s at Arizona are USC’s final games of the season because a postseason ban imposed by the university relating to NCAA violations involving former Trojans star O.J. Mayo.

Up until this point, they had something to play for — a shot on the Pacific 10 Conference regular-season championship — but that was 86’d last week.

“I’ll be interested to see who our guys react,” O’Neill said.

The chance to spoil Arizona State’s chance of winning a share of the league title is some motivation. Pride is another. “We still want to finish at the top rather than the bottom, where everyone projected us,” point guard Mike Gerrity said.

Picked to finish ninth in a Pac-10 preseason poll, USC stayed in championship contention until last week. However, the Trojans have lost three straight.

Senior guard Dwight Lewis, who has played in more games (131) than any Trojan and was a part of three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, put it simply: “I don’t want to end on a losing streak.”

Point taken

O’Neill said USC won’t try any new gimmicks against the Sun Devils, who rank seventh nationally in scoring defense (58.7) with their stifling match-up zone.

“We have tried every way of manufacturing offense that I know of throughout the year,” O’Neill said. “I’m serious. When you’re not making shots and you have a high rate of turnovers at the same time, it’s hard to score.”

During its three-game skid, USC has averaged just 45 points. The team struggles in a half-court offense because it doesn’t have the perimeter players to attack a zone. And without shooters, getting the ball inside to forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson has been nearly impossible.

“We’d love to get it inside more, but it’s very difficult to do when you’re not making threes,” O’Neill said. “If you don’t make a few threes, why would anyone come out and guard you?”

Staying the course

O’Neill doesn’t believe in emptying his bench during blowouts. He also doesn’t believe in playing walk-ons. These are two articles of his basketball faith, and he doesn’t expect to waver in these last two games.

“We’re trying to win,” O’Neill said. “I owe it to all these guys to try to win as many games as we can.”