USC Basketball: Trojans turning heads after winning tournament
After winning six straight games, including beating UNLV to win the Diamond Head Classic on Friday, USC (8-4) has started to garner national attention, from being mentioned as a possible new favorite in the Pac-10 Conference to being included in one national writer's top 25 poll.
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale tweeted: "Who would have picked USC to win the PAC 10 in hoops? They are looking like the team to beat after super W'S over Tenn &UNLV!"
Jason King, a college basketball and college football beat writer at Yahoo! Sports, tweeted: "my new pick to win the pac-10 hoops title: USC"
And FoxSports.com senior basketball writer Jeff Goodman included the Trojans in his Week 7 poll, ranking them at the No. 25 spot.
Much of USC's surprising turnaround, which is timely with the Trojans' Pac-10 opener against Arizona on Thursday at the Galen Center, is attributed to the return of two players who were ineligible, a fact that USC Coach Kevin O'Neill has repeated at nearly every opportunity.
The effect of point guard Mike Gerrity (transfer), who became eligible on Dec. 18, was evident in the Trojans' 77-55 upset of No. 9 Tennessee the next day, when he had 12 points and 10 assists in what is still the Pac-10's biggest win to date.
Then USC went to Hawaii and beat Western Michigan on Dec. 22 behind Gerrity's 17 team-high points, including 15 in the second half.
The news came the next morning that forward Leonard Washington (grades) would be eligible and he came off the bench that night against a 10-1 St. Mary's team, scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in USC's 60-49 win.
On Friday, the Trojans beat 12-1 UNLV, largely behind Gerrity, who had 13 points and, more impressively, no turnovers in 40 minutes against the Runnin' Rebels' hectic pressure defense that coming in had forced opponents into 18.5 turnovers per game.
Gerrity, who was named tournament MVP, is USC's only true point guard, O'Neill has often said, but he now leads the team in scoring (14.8) as well as assists (4.3). Since Gerrity's return, USC has won four games against teams with a combined 34-7 record, and this morning, ESPN senior college basketball writer Andy Katz named Gerrity his player of the week for week six.
"It's no joke to say that Gerrity could be the single-biggest midseason addition to any team this season -- and the reason his team is in contention for a conference title," Katz wrote.
Washington, meanwhile, is averaging 9.5 points and five rebounds in his two games, but "he gives us not only a third big man, but a movable big man," O'Neill said by phone from Hawaii, referring to USC's starting forwards Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic. "He's able to guard 3-point shooters on the floor."
Said senior forward Marcus Johnson, who scored a career-high 19 points in USC's win over UNLV: "We have a lot of weapons now. Any person can give you a great night."
-- Baxter Holmes
Photo: USC's Davis Rozitis, center, holds up the Diamond Head Classic trophy as his teammates celebrate following a 67-56 victory over UNLV on Friday. Credit: Eugene Tanner / Associated Press