Basketball: Taking the fun out of the game

Kevin O'Neill has been doing this for a long time.

He's been an assistant for 33 years and a head coach for half that, 16 seasons, 15 of which have come at the major-college level. Overall, he's won some but lost slightly more, experiencing both mind-numbingly bad seasons -- like a 5-25 record at Northwestern in 1999-2000 -- and fairly great ones, like a Sweet 16 appearance and 24-9 mark at Marquette in 1993-1994.

So, yes, with five games left in the 2011-2012 season, USC's third-year head man is fully aware of how badly his Trojans are doing this year, of how they look like locks go down as the worst-ever team in school history and of how he might very well break his own losses record.

Has his job, then, lost any and all semblance of fun?

Just about. But that doesn't mean he's going to stop doing it, or stop approaching it in the same way. He's been through situations like this before, he maintains. This might be different, with four key players now out with season-ending injuries, but it's not that different.

"I've experienced a lot of things, and what experience does is it gives you knowledge of the situation you're in," O'Neill said Sunday when asked that question in a press conference following his team's 59-47 loss to Stanford. "I know what we're in the middle of, and the players know.

"There's no fun in losing for anybody. And there's really no fun in losing ugly. I'm aware of that. But we need to do as a group is do our job every single day. My job is to get these guys better. Their job is to do the best job they can on and off the court. And then this season will pass and we'll move on to next season, which will be a totally different roster, totally different everything."

USC (6-20, 1-12 in the Pac-12) plays UCLA on Wednesday at the Sports Arena. Last month, the Bruins handed the Trojans their sixth straight loss in a 19-point blowout at USC's home court, the Galen Center.

O'Neill's Trojans have won just one of eight since then. A loss to UCLA on Wednesday isn't so much a possibility as it is a near-formality. But the coach emphasizes that there are other purposes to the upcoming final games of the season, like fighting for a spot on next year's squad.

"What every player needs to do and every coach needs to do -- and I've told our staff and our players this -- is take advantage of the opportunity," O'Neill said on Sunday, continuing his initial answer. "But it's not fun. I've been through losing streaks before, and losing streaks are not fun. Rebuilding is not fun. Seeing four of your starters go down from a team that lost all of its starters is not fun.

"Let's be honest about it -- it's tough to go through."

O'Neill expects to be back at USC next season, when the Trojans bring in former Wake Forest guard J.T. Terrell and get players like fellow Wake transfer Ari Stewart and UC Irvine transfer Eric Wise eligible for competition.