On Monday night, USC held basketball practice at 8 p.m. It was the team's first night practice of the season, but it was the only time conflicting class schedules allowed everyone to meet.
Coach Kevin O'Neill began that practice with a 30-minute film session on the team's defensive lapses against Arizona on Saturday, a game the Trojans lost 82-73 largely because the Wildcats shot a season-high 61.2% (30 for 49) from the field.
O'Neill pointed out the defensive mistakes USC made -- and did so emphatically, using the vitriol for which he has long been known, preaching defense, defense, defense between swear-filled barks.
Following the fiery film session, the Trojans had a spirited practice, arguably their best of the season, "A battle," as senior guard Donte Smith described it, but also a night-and-day contrast with the lackadaisical effort USC has displayed off and on all season long.
"We definitely needed that," junior forward Nikola Vucevic said. "We needed something to make us angry and to make us play harder."
It carried over into Tuesday, when USC held a shorter practice, but one that was still high-energy, with players shouting, hitting the floor, running harder and crashing into each other, limbs flying on defense.
O'Neill said he was pleased with the team's effort in the two practices and that he wasn't averse to more night practices this season, if for nothing else than to make sure that the players maintain their focus.
"We're not just doing it for this week or next week," he said. "We have to establish an identity in our program that we're going to play hard all the time."
O'Neill said he hopes that's the case as USC enters Wednesday night's game against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
Paramount among his concerns is defense.
"This is a fact: If we don't defend, we could lose to anyone," O'Neill said. "If we do defend, we have an opportunity to beat anyone."
The statistics agree: USC is 10-1 when holding opponents to less than 40% field-goal shooting, 2-9 when it does not.
One could blame the team's up-and-down play on the fact that its thin roster limits the Trojans to just a seven-man rotation, forcing several players to play more minutes than they should.
But the players don't use that excuse, however valid it may be, and graded the team's overall performance quite low as USC stands near the halfway point of its conference schedule.
"A D-minus," Smith said. "We're barely passing. We're just not getting it done right now."
Said senior forward Alex Stepheson: "I'd give us about a D too. We have a lot more potential than that. We could be a lot better."
Said junior guard Jio Fontan: "Probably around a D-minus. Not an F, because we beat UCLA."
Smith had previously said it's hard to pinpoint what's behind USC's inconsistent effort -- the team played brilliantly in upsets of ranked Texas and Tennessee, but dreadfully in losses to Rider, Bradley, Texas Christian, the Oregon schools and Arizona -- except to say that the Trojans are too easily satisfied.
"Just like KO said earlier how we can't handle success," Smith said. "We get one win and we just let up after the next game. It's not like last year where we went on a nine-game winning streak.
"We just had that killer instinct to keep winning. This year, we let up so easy after one win. We've just got to keep that same edge and keep it going."
But considering where USC is at this point in the season, having posted a 2-4 record since beating UCLA on Jan. 9, it's not lost on the players how much a win against the Bruins is needed on Wednesday night to have something to build on as the Trojans enter the home stretch of their schedule.
"We need a win we can build from, and this would be a great time," Vucevic said. "It’s the first game of the second part of the conference, and it's at their place and it's a rivalry game."
-- Baxter Holmes