LOS ANGELES — There are plenty of adjectives to describe coach Kevin O’Neill: boisterous, loud, tough. He can be extremely demanding on his players.
Even with all of the tense moments that can come in an O’Neill-led practice or a game with him pacing the sidelines, you can always expect a good laugh or two from him.
“With K.O., any day of the week is just priceless,” USC guard J.T. Terrell said. “Just being around K.O. you never know what you’re going to get but you can always expect a fun time with K.O.”
The team must now deal with days and life without him. O’Neill was fired on Monday as USC’s head coach. Longtime assistant Bob Cantu takes over as interim head coach.
“It was hard for me to evaluate (O’Neill) as a head coach until this year when we had enough players and veterans to compete,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement. “As the season progressed, it became evident to me that we needed new leadership in our men’s basketball program. Despite a nice road win in our last game, I felt it was best to make a change now, with most of the Pac-12 season still ahead of us, in order to re-energize our team.”
The news came early Monday morning as players were awakened with phone calls and text messages asking for them to head to Galen Center for an urgent meeting. There they learned the fate of their head coach.
“It was shocking,” said USC forward Eric Wise.
O’Neill’s firing comes on the heels of one of the team’s biggest wins of the season, a 17-point victory against Utah in Salt Lake City last Saturday in their last game under O’Neill.
“I think for the most part, our whole team was excited about that win (at Utah),” said guard Jio Fontan. “It was like the first time in a while we really felt like everything was clicking. The news today (and) decisions like this are made by those in the athletic department and as a player you kind of just roll with the punches and keep moving forward.”
Expectations were much higher for the Trojans this season coming off of a 6-26 campaign last season. This year, with a revamped roster, USC got off to a 7-10 start against a Murderer’s Row of a non-conference schedule. In addition to going to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and playing the likes of Illinois, Texas and Marquette, the Trojans also had games against San Diego State, Minnesota, at New Mexico and at Georgia.
Because of the Pac-12’s low RPI in recent years, the Trojans figured they’d give themselves a better chance at an NCAA Tournament bid if they scheduled tough and were able to win a few of those games. The plan eventually backfired on O’Neill.
“We over scheduled,” Cantu said. “We should have had more bye games in there.
“Most teams play Maui and, say, two other tough opponents. We had Maui and five other tough opponents and it was a tough stretch.”
Cantu can now add Monday’s events to the list of things he’s experienced or been a part of as a USC assistant for the past 12 seasons.
He was hired by Henry Bibby in 2002 as an assistant on a USC team that made it to the Pac-10 Tournament Championship game, earned an NCAA Tournament berth, and featured conference player of the year Sam Clancy.
He’s been on the bench for the eras of Bibby, Jim Saia, Tim Floyd and O’Neill. Sprinkled in that mix was the hiring of the late Rick Majerus and his subsequent resignation less than a week after agreeing to be the school’s head coach. He was on the bench as the team endured sanctions, including having all wins from the 2007-08 season vacated.
Cantu is regarded as one of the nation’s top assistant coaches and a top recruiter. Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan, O.J. Mayo, Taj Gibson and Nikola Vucevic are some of the current NBA players that he either helped recruit or coached during their time as Trojans.
He’s now been given the keys to the USC engine until a replacement is found or he proves to be worthy of the interim tag being removed.
There are changes he wants to make. While O’Neill was heavily in favor of playing half-court man-to-man defense, Cantu says he would like to pressure full court and will implement some zone.
“I think when you have three seven-footers, there’s going to be times when you have to play zone,” he said.
Offensively, he’s not shy of pushing the tempo and would like to run the ball more than the Trojans did under O’Neill to try to create easy baskets.
“I think a lot of time you sit and grind out in a half court and it’s difficult to score,” he said. “We’ll try different things. We’ll see what works and we’ll see what combinations work and try to see what’s best for us.”
The next 14 games, in addition to whatever success the Trojans have in the Pac-12 Tournament, will be an opportunity for Cantu to try to prove if he’s best for the Trojans. As the quintessential team player, Cantu has seen a lot working for four coaches over 12 years and served as a glue guy when one head coach was let go and another entered. Prepared, yet surprised, he now he gets his shot to be the head coach.
“I’ve been asked to be the interim head coach and I think anytime you’re an interim head coach you have a chance to showcase what you can do,” Cantu said. “As an assistant your goal was always to become a head coach — most guys — and that’s always been my goal. You never envision it happening this way. That’s for sure.
“I never thought I’d be sitting here becoming a head coach at ‘SC in the middle of the season as the first time becoming a head coach, but it’s happened.”