When forward Leonard Washington became academically eligible last week, Kevin O’Neill told his team two words that show either supreme confidence or complete hubris.
The players didn’t say much at the time, but for the USC coach to talk that way says enough.
“I don’t think we’re an odds-on favorite to win the national title or anything like that, but why would you play the game if you don’t think you have a chance to win it?” O’Neill said Wednesday. “I’m going to try to win one. That’s what everybody wants to do in our business.”
O’Neill has constantly said the addition of Washington and transfer Mike Gerrity would improve the team.
But despite USC’s six consecutive victories, the phrase still sounds foolhardy for a patchwork team that lost three players to the NBA, five players from a recruiting class, is under NCAA investigation, and in the preseason was picked to finish ninth in the Pacific 10 Conference.
“He’s been around and I trust his judgment,” Washington said.
Gerrity said the statement shows what O’Neill thinks of the team, but several players said they aren’t too excited going into today’s Pac-10 opener against Arizona.
“It’s great that he has that confidence in us, but we can’t live on what he says,” senior guard Dwight Lewis said. “We have to go out there and do it.”
Added junior forward Alex Stepheson: “Saying the national title is pretty big and it feels good knowing Coach has confidence in us like that, but I still think we have a lot more work to do.”
For O’Neill, it’s not only a goal, but a state of mind.
“I want our guys to aspire to be better than maybe they think they can be,” he said.
Gerrity joined USC on Dec. 18, and the team is 4-0 since.
O’Neill calls the change in statistics “astounding.”
Here are USC’s statistics in the four games with Gerrity, who is averaging 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, compared to the eight games without:
Opponent’s FG pct
Assists per game
Turnovers per game
USC’s last four wins have come against teams with a 34-7 combined record, and the Trojans have the Pac-10’s only two wins against ranked teams — against No. 9 Tennessee and No. 20 Nevada Las Vegas.
“One guy does make that big a difference,” O’Neill said. “He’s not only playing well, he’s playing great.”
O’Neill said he carries no special emotion into today’s matchup with Arizona, a school that unexpectedly fired him as an assistant in 2008 after he was pegged to become the replacement for longtime coach Lute Olson.
“You know what, I never said anything after I left,” O’Neill said. “A lot of people did a lot of talking. I chose not to.
“I’m very happy where I am. I’m sure they’re very happy with [Coach] Sean Miller.”