The changes at Southern California will not stop with new coach Bob Cantu, who Monday morning replaced Kevin O’Neill on an interim basis for the rest of the season.
Cantu plans to hit the ground running. He wants to play at a faster pace, use more zone defense with twin towers Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Orabi at the back end, and integrate several new players into the rotation. It is a tall order, and it will not happen overnight – the Trojans play host to the Oregon schools this week, with newly elevated No. 21 Oregon in town Thursday, and there is only enough time for game preparation. When the UCLA game rolls around at new Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 30, USC might have its own new look.
“I worked with two great defensive coaches in Tim Floyd and Kevin O’Neill, but I also believe I have to adjust to my personnel” Cantu said of 7-foot Dedmon and 7-2 Orabi. “I have two seven-footers, and so I think it is OK to play zone at times to use my length and size at the rim for resistance.
“I do want to try to speed it up a little bit offensively and try to get easier baskets. It’s very difficult to score against five set defenders. I think we need more pressure full-court. We need to try to get turnover pushes, more foul shots and hopefully more offensive rebounding, other ways of scoring other than manufacturing against a set defense.”
O’Neill favored a patterned offense and played almost solely a man-to-man defense as the Trojans opened the season 7-10, 2-2 in the Pac-12. It seemed a curious time for USC to make a coaching change, coming as it did after a 17-point victory at Utah on Saturday, but that in itself seems to indicate the decision already had been made. O’Neill was 48-65 in 3 ½ seasons after replacing Floyd in 2009, with injuries and the fallout from the NCAA probation issues surrounding O.J. Mayo muddying his tenure.
“I was saddened by it,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “I think Kevin is a really good coach. We’ve had a friendship that dates decades, and they’ve been playing well. I’m watching them on tape, because they are our travel partner. I was a little surprised, but it is a part of this business.”
It was rare to see Dedmon and Orabi on the floor at the same time this season, but it sounds as if that might change, at least when the matchups allow. Washington and Arizona State have big, physical centers, and UCLA has a tall frontline. Dedmon and Orabi have combined to average 14.6 points and 12 rebounds a game while blocking 61 shots. Orabi, a transfer from Rice, is shooting 62 percent from the field in 15 minutes a game.
“I need to play Omar more minutes. We have to get him the ball, and I have to get him in better condition so he can play longer minutes,” Cantu said.
Wake Forest transfers guard J.T. Terrell and forward Ari Stewart also could see more time, Cantu suggested. Terrell, whose YouTube videos demonstrate his remarkable athleticism, is the Trojans’ second-leading at 9.6 points a game, but he is shooting only 31 percent from the floor and had 23 turnovers against eight assists. He was in and out of lineup because of that erraticism and seemed to have a rocky relationship with O’Neill.
Terrell, 6-feet-3, led five Trojans in double figures with 14 points in the 76-59 victory at Utah, when Dedmon had 13 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“He played under control, so he showed he can do it,” Cantu said of Terrell. “I told him that I would give him more freedom to play how he can play, but he has to earn it. He has to deserve it. I need him to play more athletic. We need him to score and make shots. He will play a very important role, because I think that will allow Jio (Fontan) to get more looks and for teams not to load up to him if he can score for us.”
Cantu ended practice Monday by handing out homework. He left his players with a question: Why do they play? Is it height? The scholarship? Notoriety? Answers were expected before Tuesday practice, and Cantu knew what he wanted to hear.
“I want to know do you really love this game, and do you have passion and do you want to win?” he said. “If you do, let’s show it and let’s come together and see what we can do. They are a lot of games left, and anything is possible.”
It took a while, but the improved overall level of play in the Pac-12 has drawn national attention. For only the second time this season, the league has three teams in the AP top 25: No. 7 Arizona (15-1), No. 21 Oregon (14-2) and No. 24 UCLA (14-3). Oregon jumped 13 places in the AP poll after sweeping the Arizona schools last weekend, handing Arizona its first loss Thursday, but remains unranked in the coaches’ poll.
UCLA and Oregon are undefeated in Pac-12 play, and the Bruins have won nine in a row, their longest streak in four years. The Ducks have a five-game winning streak. Their match at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon will be the first between two Pac-12 AP top 25 teams since March 13, 2009, when James Harden-led No. 23 Arizona State beat No. 13 Washington 75-65 in the postseason tournament.
“Our conference is much better than it was (recently)” UCLA’s Howland said. “It’s back to, in my mind, where we were in ’07, ’08, ’09. It’s good for our conference. It is good for our national exposure and prestige for the league to have as many teams.”
With unranked Arizona State (14-3), the Pac-12 has four 14-win teams. The only conference with more is the Big Ten, with five.