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USC’s Kevin O’Neill can see clearly now

In a city and region known for clear blue skies, the USC men’s basketball program had a dark cloud hanging low over its 2009-10 season.

First came self-imposed sanctions in January that banned the Trojans from postseason play for allegations of scandal surrounding former star O.J. Mayo.

Then came the wait for the NCAA’s final decision after a four-year investigation, which arrived in June.

But now that the ban has lifted and the NCAA decided not to further penalize the Trojans basketball team, Coach Kevin O’Neill can breathe easier entering this season, which starts Nov. 13.

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“I’m glad we self-imposed,” O’Neill said Wednesday at a coaches luncheon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. “I think it played in our favor. Had we not, I think we’d have lost another recruiting class, and if you lose two in a row you’re basically dead in the water.”

A year after three players left early and five committed recruits never showed up, USC was able to bring in four players who should see plenty of minutes this season.

Point guard Maurice Jones, a 5-foot-7 freshman who averaged 30 points, 12 assists and five rebounds as a high school senior in Michigan, is expected to lead the offense — at least until Fordham transfer Jio Fontan becomes eligible in mid-December.

O’Neill said he recently told Jones, “You’re going to find out I don’t [care] how old you are, how much experience you have. Your job is to win.”

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The lineup

Jones will have help with the Pacific 10 Conference’s top two returning rebounders: forwards Alex Stepheson (7.4 per game) and Nikola Vucevic (9.4).

Three freshmen — guard Bryce Jones and forwards Curtis Washington and Garrett Jackson — are expected to compete for starting spots along with senior guards Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons. But O’Neill said he hasn’t settled on a starting lineup for a team that lost four of its top six scorers from a season ago.

Shaping up

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O’Neill expects that this team will be much better in transition than last season’s 16-14 squad, which finished in a fifth-place tie in the Pac-10 and averaged a conference-worst 59.6 points per game.

The coach credited part of that to improved conditioning and the work of first-year strength and conditioning manager Shaun Brown, who has held similar positions with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.

“We’re going to be thin numbers-wise, so guys have to be in great shape, and I think they are,” O’Neill said. “We’re going to be bigger, stronger, faster.”

Experience to be tested

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The Trojans have only four players who appeared in 10 or more last season, and their overall youth will be tested early in nonconference games against Nebraska, Texas Christian, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com


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