We traded questions with the fine folks at Conquest Chronicles for Saturday's game between the Vols and Trojans - Joey Kaufman was kind enough to answer for us, and you can find our responses at their site.
1.) How well is this team adjusting to Kevin O'Neill's style and tempo?
So far this season, the Trojans appear to be fully on board with Kevin O’Neill's style of play, which carries both positives and negatives. Traditionally, O’Neill’s team’s are extremely tough defensively so the fact that the Trojans are holding opponents to 58 points per game and 38.5% shooting this early in the season are certainly good signs. No team has scored over 80 points on them despite the fact that they played both Texas and Georgia Tech on the road. However, while the team has bought into O’Neill's defensive-oriented philosophy, they unfortunately have adopted his offensive plan as well. After eight games, the Trojans rank last in the Pac-10 and 255th nationally in points per game with 59. Not only are the Trojans slowing the game down, but they continue to shoot poorly from the field. So far, they have posted a field goal shooting percentage of just 42% and a 3-point shooting percentage of 30%. That isn’t exactly indicative of a great offensive team. Unfortunately, nothing in O’Neill’s past seems to suggest the poor offensive showing this season is anything of an aberration so it remains to be seen how much they will or even can improve.
2.) What did USC learn from losses to other ranked teams in Texas and Georgia Tech? How well did they play in those games?
The road games against Texas and Georgia Tech were real tests for the Trojans, but unfortunately, they failed both miserably. Against the Longhorns, O’Neill’s bunch was somewhat competitive, as they trailed by just six at halftime and even four at the 9-minute mark in the second half. But Nikola Vucevic, who had 18 points on the game, soon fouled out, and Texas was able to finish strongly and win by a score of 69-50. While the game in Austin did feature at least some positives, the matchup against Georgia Tech was an utter disaster. Dwight Lewis was benched six minutes into the game, the team turned the ball over 19 times, and eventually lost by 26 points.
And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure exactly what this team learned from the either game. One of the common denominators in both losses was their tendency to turn the ball over and allow the opposition to go on multiple scoring runs. You would think in the contests following they would try and shore up the problem, but turnovers continued to haunt the Trojans in home games against Sacramento State and Idaho State – 25 against SSU and 17 against ISU. Something clearly needs to change.
3.) Who are the players the Vols should watch out for on Saturday?
The Vols really need to keep an eye on two guys in particular – Dwight Lewis and Alex Stepheson. By all accounts, Lewis is the Trojans’ best scorer and has the capability of scoring fifteen-to-twenty points on any given night provided he gets enough attempts. Against UC Riverside, he scored 22 points, and most recently had 19 against Idaho State. He is a shooter first and foremost, so Tennessee must make sure he doesn’t get too many open looks. Stepheson is the Trojans’ starting center and has been a force on the defensive so far this season, as he averages 3 blocks and nearly 10 rebounds per game. Most recently, he recorded double-doubles against Sacramento State and Idaho State, as well as 7 and 4 blocked shots.
4.) In an obvious down year for the Pac-10, what are the expectations for the Trojans? How far can they go?
The Pac-10 is so awful this year that many Trojan fans actually believe that ‘SC has an outside chance to take home the conference crown and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament once again. While certainly an unlikely scenario, their estimations are not too far off either. Cal and Washington are the only legitimate threats to win the title, and even both teams have looked vulnerable this season (Cal lost to New Mexico and Washington lost to Texas Tech). So theoretically, the Trojans could end up earning an automatic bid to the Big Dance simply because they have the chance of winning the conference’s postseason tournament this March – which fortunately takes place about 5-10 minutes away from USC at Staples Center. I certainly don’t think they end up finishing first, but a top half finish and trip to the NIT are certainly viable possibilities.
5.) Through his first eight games, how much have people bought into what O'Neill is doing? Is USC on board with O'Neill or are people still skeptical?
So far Trojan fans have been very reasonable with Kevin O’Neill, especially considering the circumstances surrounding the program right now. Even when he was hired, O’Neill, who has sub-500 career record, did not receive an inordinate amount of criticism, as most fans realized that USC was not in the position to hire a top-notch coach. The best term to describe the outlook most fans have toward O’Neill right now is "cautiously optimistic," as he has already proven to be a capable recruiter in his short stint as the Trojans’ head man. So far, ESPNU ranked the Trojans’ Class of 2010 in their top twenty and the jewel of the group is 6’4" wingman Bryce Jones, who is regarded by some to be the best perimeter player coming out of Southern California this year. So through recruiting alone, many Trojan fans have become believers in O’Neill. In terms of the on-the-court product this year, most are willing to give O’Neill a break considering this team’s lack of depth due to the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo fiasco that occurred in June, and are taking on the "wait and see" approach.