Kevin O’Neill, who has been coaching basketball for more than 30 years, cannot explain the injuries that have befallen USC this season.
“I’ve never been through something like this,” he says.
Guard Maurice Jones, in his second year with the Trojans, also is at a loss.
“I really don’t know what it is,” he says.
Newcomer Greg Allen stopped trying to figure it out.
“I haven’t been able to put my finger on it,” he says. “I feel like we’re cursed.”
Seemingly snakebit USC goes into a game Wednesday night against UCLA in the midst of one its worst seasons.
The Trojans, 6-20 overall, are 1-12 and in last place in the Pac-12 Conference.
The loss of two recruiting classes, including defections that were fallout from the self-imposed sanctions that resulted from the O.J. Mayo investigation, certainly handicapped USC. But injuries that ended the seasons of five key players are what baffle players and coaches alike.
Like O’Neill and the players, veteran assistant coach Bob Cantu remains positive and looks ahead to better times while wondering who might go down next.
“The way it’s going, you never know,” he says jokingly. “I could be on the sideline and a guy could dive for a loose ball and take my knee out. So it’s probably safer for me to be on the road recruiting.”
USC is down to six scholarship players and has had to use walk-ons.
With five regular-season games and at least one Pac-12 tournament game remaining, the Trojans are safe from finishing with the worst winning percentage in the program’s 105-year history.
That distinction goes to the 1918 Trojans. According to school records, Coach Dean Cromwell’s squad went 0-2 that season, losing twice to the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
However, this season’s team is on pace to eclipse the school record of 22 losses, set in 1988-89 by a George Raveling-coached team that won 10 games.
If the Trojans don’t win again, they will also match the modern school record for fewest victories, set by the 1976-77 team that finished 6-20 under Bob Boyd.
O’Neill has tried to remain upbeat, telling players to avoid a woe-is-me attitude and take advantage of remaining opportunities.
But he also allows that, “This certainly hasn’t been fun for anyone. I think we can all agree on that.”
USC’s injury problems date to August, when they began preparations for a four-game exhibition tour in Brazil.
Curtis Washington, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, suffered a shoulder injury a few days into workouts, did not play during the Trojans’ 2-2 trip and had surgery upon their return.
In the third game in Brazil, senior point guard Jio Fontan, who had scored 57 points in the first two exhibitions, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
During preparations for the regular season, sophomore forward Evan Smith reinjured the surgically repaired left shoulder that kept him sidelined last season. He played in four games before he was shut down entirely.
Junior forward Aaron Fuller played most of the season with a shoulder injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage against Air Force. His effectiveness waning, he underwent surgery last month.
The latest blow came Jan. 26, the same day Fuller had surgery. Early in a game against Colorado, 7-foot sophomore Dewayne Dedmon suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, ending his season.
“It was like one after another,” Dedmon says. “Just unreal.”
Fontan chooses another word — “surreal” — to describe the chain of injuries that have sunk the Trojans.
“The rehab center has become kind of a practice center to us,” he says. “You just try to have as much fun as you can. You can’t really worry about it. Just come and go hard and hope for the best.”
After a loss Sunday to Stanford, O’Neill was philosophical when asked whether there any remaining games that the Trojans could win.
“Going into any game you’ve got a chance,” he says. “It’s basketball. I always tell our guys, ‘If they’re wearing short pants they can beat you.’
“We’re wearing short pants, so hopefully we’ll have a chance to win some games.”