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USC basketball: What would the Trojans be like if former signee Derrick Williams had stayed?

Hypotheticals are fun, especially in sports. 

For example, what if LeBron James had stayed in Cleveland?

(Then the Cavaliers wouldn't have lost 19 straight entering Saturday, one short of a team record...)

And what if he hadn't destroyed his credibility, as many have said, by the way he left

(Then we wouldn't have awesome spoof videos, such as this and this, a rebuttal to his Nike spot...)

Staying along the lines of basketball, and how teams would be if certain players had stayed, we turn to USC, which on Saturday night will face Arizona, a team that features three former USC commits, namely star forward and potential college basketball player of the year candidate Derrick Williams.  

So, if the uber-athletic Williams, who averages 19.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, leads the Pacific 10 Conference in field-goal percentage (62.7% -- 121 for 193), leads the nation in free throws (204) and made free throw (153), and is also shooting an incredible 67.7% (21 for 31) from three-point range, was playing for USC, how good would the Trojans be, hypothetically speaking?

"Pretty damn good," USC senior forward Alex Stepheson said, laughing. 

Which is why his absence hurts USC, a team that's 12-9 with a 4-4 record in Pacific 10 Conference play, so much. 

First, the background.

As I wrote in The Times, it's still a sore subject for USC associate head coach Bob Cantu, who recruited and signed Williams, the former La Mirada High star turned projected-NBA lottery pick who has quickly turned around Arizona (17-4, 6-2), which was supposed to be rebuilding.

"Painful," is how Cantu described it. 

"It's so hard to find a kid who's that under-the-radar, that ends up being that good, that has that much impact on a team," Cantu said.

"And it's one thing to say, 'Oh, you almost had him,'" Cantu said, "but we did."

Five recruits left USC's 2009 recruiting class and three of them -- Lamont Jones, Solomon Hill and Williams -- ended up at Arizona. (The other two were Noel Johnson, who is now at Clemson, and Renardo Sidney, who is at Mississippi State.)

The mass exodus of recruits came about the time former USC Coach Tim Floyd abruptly resigned and about the time the NCAA began investigating alleged improper benefits to former USC player O.J. Mayo.  

But when that started happening, Williams wasn't intent on leaving USC, a school he grew up loving.

"I was still like, 'I want to go here. It's a good school academically and sports-wise,'" Williams said.

Then all the recruits started leaving.

"I was still 100% into USC and once everybody started dropping out ... at that point, I was the only player left, so I just wanted to open up all my options," Williams said.

Williams asked out of his letter of intent that he signed with USC, which then-USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett granted on June 15, 2009, and then he went to Arizona, choosing the Wildcats over Memphis.  

For USC, losing the three players, who are Arizona's top three scorers -- Williams is averaging 19.8 points per game, Hill is averaging 8.5 and Jones is averaging 8.3 -- hurts a lot.

Arizona Coach Sean Miller doesn't like talking about his loss as Arizona's gain much, as he rebuffed an attempt by my colleague David Wharton for a story on this subject last season, saying then, "I don't want to make this any bigger a story than it is."

When asked about it Friday, he was defensive at first, but eventually discussed it.

"We had no head start," Miller said. "We entered the race at the same starting point as every other school that wanted them — and believe me, there were quite a few — and we won." 

Of course, at that time, Arizona had lost Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, who both declared for the NBA draft after their junior seasons, so the Wildcats needed players and had playing time to offer. 

"That's also a part off it," Miller said. "Each one of them looked at Arizona as a unique opportunity, because every player wants to impact the program the right way, and they certainly saw that here. That was to our disadvantage and it's also to our advantage."

Which is to the disadvantage of the Trojans, a team short on talent and players, with only a seven-man rotation. Speaking of that, USC has virtually no post-player depth, which brings us back to its biggest loss in recent memory: Williams. 

"This guy is as big an impact player on his team as anybody in the whole country," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said. "So he would’ve had a similar impact at our place. He’s just that good a player."

Since he's on the other side, he poses a problem for USC instead of being an asset.

"He's really skilled," USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic said. "He has great footwork for his size. He's really hard to guard. When he faces up, it's hard because he spins, he goes up and under. He does a bunch of stuff -- and he's pretty athletic and he can shoot too, so he's pretty hard to guard."

It's still weird for Williams to face USC, as he told me.

"It is a little strange, especially when I was basically a month, three to four weeks from going to that school and being enrolled in that school," he said.

Williams said it was especially strange last season when he played in the Galen Center on Dec. 31, a game the Trojans won, 56-50, despite 15 points and eight rebounds from Williams. 

"When the announcer says, 'Derrick Williams,' everybody starts to boo," Williams said he remembered. "That just means you're doing something good."

-- Baxter Holmes, reporting from Tucson

 
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