USC coach Kevin O'Neill held a 10:15 a.m. meeting Sunday to inform his players of the university-imposed sanctions that would keep them out of postseason play this season.
Players described the mood in the room as eerily quiet, with every eye and ear focused on their first-year coach.
Said O'Neill: "It was the hardest thing I've had to do as a coach."
But the 52-year-old took the job knowing it would be a possibility, and he and his players knew something would happen — eventually. But this?
"We knew there would be some consequences," O'Neill said. "Nobody knew when it would happen or what they would be, and there's still some unknowns, but for the most part it's helping us move forward by doing what we're doing right now."
Doing what they're doing now is continuing to play well, in O'Neill's words. He called the effort at Monday's practice "awesome; point guard Mike Gerrity agreed, calling the practice "business as usual."
O'Neill says he knows his players will keep that up, even without the hope of a postseason run.
"All of the distractions of this situation are what worry me more than the sanctions or anything," O'Neill said. "Hopefully our guys can avoid those distractions."
Distraction No. 1 is the end to the season. There are 14 games left for this year's Trojans. For Gerrity and the other seniors, postseason play could've served as an time for exposure, an indefinite opportunity to extend their college careers.
Instead, the season ends March 6 — definitively.
"I think it's a kick in the butt for everybody," O'Neill said. "But I especially feel sorry for our seniors. Dwight Lewis, Marcus Johnson, and Mike Gerrity are all having really good years."
"If there was anything I could do about it, I would."
USC (10-4, 2-0) was gaining popularity as a sleeper team to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
And while neither The Big Dance nor even a Pac-10 tournament run a la last year is a possibility, "We're gonna deal with it," Gerrity said. "And we still feel like we have something to play for, the Pac-10 outright title."
"Sure, the hopes of the postseason were on our minds before this, now we have a new challenge — a new championship — to go after."
And amid questions of whether the university is effectively throwing the basketball under the bus to save a higher-profile football program, O'Neill and Gerrity emphasized they do not feel victimized.
Said O'Neill: "We aren't victims here."