Trojans' hopes center on Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson

The biggest of USC's men's basketball players should also be the biggest factors this season in determining the Trojans' success.

Nikola Vucevic, the smooth-shooting Serbian, and Alex Stepheson, the brutish, broad-shouldered Angeleno.

Both are 6 feet 10. Vucevic, a 240-pound junior, relies on finesse. Stepheson, a 250-pound senior, counts on power.

So different, yet the best of friends. And both so important as USC tries to improve on a 16-14 record forged last season amid the tumult of self-imposed penalties and an NCAA investigation.

"If they can anchor our defense and rebound, it'll give us a chance in every game," said Kevin O'Neill, the Trojans' second-year coach.

USC players spent most of last season knowing that game results didn't really matter. Part of the way the school punished itself in the wake of violations that occurred in O.J. Mayo's one year with the team was to make the Trojans ineligible to participate in any tournament last postseason.

In that context, a two-games-over-.500 record wasn't bad. "I applaud the way the guys did last year, and hopefully that sets the tone for how we're going to play this year," O'Neill said.

The tone will largely be set by Vucevic and Stepheson, the Pacific 10 Conference's top returning rebounders. Vucevic pulled in an average of 9.4 a game last season; Stepheson grabbed 7.2. They also combined to average 2.9 blocks.

By those contributions alone, they're crucial since USC's backcourt is composed of two freshmen (Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones, no relation), a transfer who won't be eligible until mid-December (Jio Fontan) and a pair of seldom-used seniors (Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith).

"On defense, the guards can trust that they can pressure up on their man and we'll have their back to block shots and get the rebound," Stepheson said.

Maurice Jones said being backed up by that kind of security was a "blessing." And the feeling is mutual. Jones, a 5-7 freshman from Michigan, is the type of dynamic guard USC was missing last season.

"This year, I think there will be six to eight extra points a game just on assists from Mo," Vucevic said.

What makes the point guard so vital is that he can penetrate, draw defenders, then dump off for easy buckets.

"And once I get them easy buckets," Jones said, "it kind of makes them more motivated to rebound and do the other things for me that I need them to do."

The one thing Vucevic and Stepheson can't afford to do is get into foul trouble. USC's front-line depth is kiddy-pool shallow, with freshmen Garrett Jackson and Curtis Washington as the backups.

Vucevic and Stepheson have pledged to avoid fouls, which they couldn't do last season when each spent important stretches on the bench because of fouls they picked up early.

On offense, their different styles complement each other, helping them "stay out of each other's way," O'Neill said.

Vucevic's outside shooting forces defenders to the perimeter and frees up the lane for Stepheson, a down-low threat and double-team magnet who is adept at passing the ball back out when appropriate.

When both play inside, they wait to see who gets double-teamed before deciding to shoot or pass.

"We try to help each other a lot on the court," Vucevic said. "Like if I see Al open, and he's in a better position than me, I'm going to pass it to him and I think he does the same for me. We work for each other."

Their scoring is expected to improve —10.7 last season for Vucevic, 8.4 for Stepheson — largely because of how they spent their off-seasons.

Vucevic, the Pac-10's most improved player last season, spent the summer with the Montenegro national team, and he said playing against older men toughened him.

Stepheson got familiar with yoga, which he said limbered a frame that, while muscular, often left him looking stiff and awkward.

And through video games and a geography class they had together last year, they've improved their friendship, which wasn't easy when they met two years ago.

"Nik didn't know English very well, so it was hard to talk to him," Stepheson said.

Not anymore. And as much as those lines of communication have improved, so has their on-court synergy.

Exactly how much, we're about to find out.

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