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USC basketball: More from Kevin O'Neill and Pat Haden on team's progress moving past sanctions

February 10, 2011 | 11:35 am

As I wrote in Thursday's edition of The Times, USC second-year Coach Kevin O'Neill has received a lot of criticism lately for the way his basketball team is performing, especially from fans via e-mail.

But if you compare USC, which is 12-11 overall, 4-6 in Pacific 10 Conference play and has lost five of seven games entering Thursday night's game against Oregon State, with other schools that have faced sanctions, the Trojans are really doing pretty good, as they have a 28-25 record under O'Neill. 

I delve into this subject much more in the story, so please check it out, but here are some tidbits that didn't make it in from my interviews with O'Neill and USC Athletic Director Pat Haden.

O'Neill on whether USC hired him to fix a program that faced sanctions:

"They never really said that, but I think it was understood. When I talked to them, I said, 'Listen, I’ve been through this.' And I’d much rather have a grizzled, veteran guy [for this]. I’ve been fired three times in the NBA. I’ve been through ups, downs, ins, outs -- all that kind of stuff. It makes you more realistic in your approach."

O'Neill on how this compares with those other programs he has helped rebuild at Northwestern, Tennessee and Marquette

"This is by far the toughest. The other ones, they were just losing."

O'Neill on why he took the job:

"I did have a couple other choices. I could’ve coached overseas for really good money. I could’ve had an NBA’s assistant job. There were two or three things my agent was working on that could’ve been possibilities. [But] I just thought this was a great opportunity at a great institution. I really did. Had this been any other institution, it would’ve been a little bit daunting."

O'Neill on how long term the USC rebuild is compared with his other rebuilds: 

"This is more long term than any of those by the fact that you’ve got those two blank [recruiting] classes, which, to me, that’s a killer, but more than that it’s overcoming the whole thing."

O'Neill on how the loss of 13 players in a year and a half -- three early departures to pro basketball, five recruits who changed their minds, three players who exhausted their eligibility and two who were dismissed or decided to transfer -- would affect other teams:

"If you look around our league or any league, pick any team, take all the sophomores and juniors off their team. That’s what we have." 

O'Neill on when USC can really begin to rebuild:

"Getting through this year, competitively, would mean we’ve really weathered the storm the first two years. And then next year, to me, you can really start to rebuild."

O'Neill on the possibility of losing junior forward Nikola Vucevic to the NBA draft if Vucevic declares early:

"It’s obvious to anybody we’ll be better if Nik stays than if he leaves, but I’m prepared for Nik to do whatever’s best for him, and he and I, we’ve talked many times. I’ll support whatever he wants done." 

O'Neill on whether he feels pressure to turn the team around more quickly: 

"To me, that’s the way it is. But nobody looks back as a fan. Just win, baby. I have a friend of mine who’s a lawyer in Milwaukee. We’ve stayed lifelong friends. Whenever he calls, 'Just win, baby.' That’s really the only mentality of American college and pro sports. Nobody wants to hear your circumstance, nobody cares about what has happened. And I appreciate our fans wanting to win.

"When I get e-mails, which are many, complaining about our team or complaining about this, I understand that because that’s the nature of this business. What you have to do is put the blinders on and go straight ahead. That’s what I do every day.

"The thing people forget because it’s not their circumstance: I want to win more than anybody. I can tell you right now, standing up there for the last three minutes losing at UCLA, that’s not a fun thing. But it is part of the business." 

O'Neill on how patient he is during this process:

"I’m totally impatient as a person, as a whole, but I understand certain things aren’t going to happen because I’ve been through this so many times."

O'Neill on how he used to be during the rebuilding process:

"The first time I went through this at Marquette, I was 32. I was maniacal. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I was always thinking the worst was going to happen." 

O'Neill on what it was like at Marquette: 

"When I got to Marquette, I actually took over one great player, Tony Smith, who played years in the NBA. And we had the Tony Smith rule. The Tony Smith rule was, if you shot before he had two chances to shoot it, you were out of the game, because that’s how much better he was than the rest of the players. Then the following year, we started four freshmen and we took a dip, as you’re going to do, but then we started to piece things together."

O'Neill on how he deals with his current impatience:

"I try to immerse myself in the players we have available. I really do."

O'Neill on whether former USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett knew the team would struggle when he hired him: 

"Garrett knew that. Every person in that meeting had a great vision of it. The thing that always happens, though, is when you get in the middle of these situations, is everyone wants to look forward and no one wants to look back at what happened. That’s just the way it is. That’s players, fans, coaches, everybody." 

O'Neill on why he believes his style of aggressive man-to-man defense and rebounding is the only method that works for a rebuilding program:

"When you take over a rebuilding team, you’re obviously not talented, and if you wanted to be a run-pass, haul ... team, you are going to get crushed, most games."

O'Neill on how the aspect of scheduling factors into his plan for rebuilding: 

"You want to play a good schedule, which I believe in doing. I’m not going to come in here and schedule 10 bye games. That didn’t make sense to me. If you look at some of these other programs, what they’ve done while they’re rebuilding, they’ve scheduled all these bye games."

O'Neill on how teams negative recruit against you when you're either facing sanctions and under sanctions:

"That’s a way of life when you’re rebuilding. Everybody asks me the difference in the NBA and college. The difference in NBA and college is, in the NBA, all the coaches pull for each other. In college, most college coaches kill each other. You never see anything more evident than when you’re going through an investigation. I had never been through one. The things that people say are just incredulous. I could go from top to bottom. It’s unbelievable. And most of them, to be honest with you, are assistant coaches."

O'Neill on what he told recruits before sanctions were handed down:

"My whole thing is, I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know as much as I do. But I can assure you USC is a great place and eventually this thing will get right and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later."

O'Neill on what he tells recruits now:  

"We’re close to being good."

Haden on why USC is struggling:  

"As I’ve watched college basketball, you need to be eight, nine guys deep, and we don’t have that right now. We’re young and we’re thin."

Haden on whether he's pleased with O'Neill:

"I’m looking two, three years down the road as we grow, and I think Kevin has us moving in the right direction. I’m very pleased with where he’s headed. He does a lot of things well. We’re quite satisfied."

Haden on whether there's a timetable for O'Neill to turn the team around:

"I don’t look at it as a timetable or a grace period. I know what he has. I talk to Kevin nearly every day."

Haden on what he thinks of this season's team as compared with last season: 

"I think we’re a better team than we were last year. I think next year’s team will be better than this year’s team."

Haden on what he expects in terms of improvement: 

"We want to get substantially better. We don’t want to get a little bit better. We want to get substantially better."

Haden on his ultimate goal for the USC men's basketball team: 

"We want to have our basketball program on an equal footing with our football program. We really do. We should have a consistently winning product here and if I can do one thing as an athletic director, I’d want to win a national championship in basketball.

Haden on what it takes for USC to improve:  

"It comes from back-to-back-to-back-to-back recruiting years. He wants to recruit quality kids, probably not the one-and-done types, but quality kids that are going to stay here for two, three, four years." 

And lastly, I liked what Baylor Coach Scott Drew had to say when we spoke about the impact of sanctions on a program. And he would know, since he and Baylor have overcome a lot.

First, Drew said that while it's hard to play under the sanctions when they're imposed, it's almost as difficult to play while under investigation.

During that stretch, opposing schools negative recruit against you, telling high school players and junior college players not to waste their time going to your school because it's going to be buried in penalties.

And, of course, those possibilities can have a big effect on a kid.

"Then when the sanctions come out, they make it tougher on you, which they're designed to do," Drew said.  

What's it like to coach under them?

"It's like in golf," he said. "If you go into match play, and you're already three strokes down, it's tougher to win."

-- Baxter Holmes

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