Oftentimes the best way to judge a season is in comparison to the one just before it.
Did the team improve? Did it decline? Did it stay the same?
From that perspective, the 19-15 year that Kevin O'Neill and the Trojans finished with this season has to be deemed a success, despite their quick first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament with Wednesday's 59-46 loss to Virginia Commonwealth. They finished 16-14 last year.
"I don't want to take away from what this team did this year," O'Neill said. "Nobody should."
At the end of the day, though, how you finish is often what people remember most, so the loss will most certainly take away from the Trojans' accomplishments this year. Still, when evaluating the team's progress, it's as simple as this: USC was slightly better this season than last. The records will tell you that, the film will tell you that, and most in-depth statistical analysis will tell you that also.
The difference came because of USC's late-season run in conference games, winning five of its last six. Because of that, the Trojans were a good amount improved when it came to Pac-10 play this season, improving by two full games off of last year's pace.
Perhaps that's because the Pac-10, overall, declined. More likely, though, it's because USC stayed motivated throughout the 18-game conference schedule and didn't get discouraged halfway through like the Trojans did last year because of sanctions that banned them from postseason play.
At one point, things looked like even worse than last year, with the team 5-7 in conference after a home loss to Oregon in mid-February. But two straight wins in the Bay Area -- the rarity of all rarities for the Trojans -- followed, and soon they were in business again. They swept the Arizona schools at home, split a road trip to Washington and got to the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament with a win over Cal.
That was literally just enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament, as they snuck in as one of the last teams in, a First Four team in the inaugural edition of the First Four. And they were quickly eliminated.
It's remarkable enough in itself that USC managed to do that, but it's even more remarkable considering the circumstances, with O'Neill suspended just before the Arizona semifinal game because of an altercation with a booster. And the sanctions, of course, which continue to affect scholarship limits and affected recruiting days in the past.
Because of all those things, O'Neill is quite proud of his team's success this year.
“We have endured many, many things over two years of sanctions and guys being ineligible, guys being hurt, guys leaving, guys graduating, losing four out of six guys and 70 percent of our scoring from a 16-win team last season,” O’Neill said after Wednesday's game, beginning to recite all the instances of adversity before his voice trailed off. “Jio not not being able to play 10 games…
“All those things these guys have endured. And they have played hard and got us to the NCAA Tournament under circumstances that are almost impossible to do that under."
The thing is, the circumstances won't improve all that much next year if junior forward Nikola Vucevic leaves to the NBA. Think about it. The Trojans had seven -- or six and a half, as O'Neill has said -- viable players this year, with the starters and freshmen Maurice Jones and Garrett Jackson coming off the bench.
And next year's lineup? The seniors -- Alex Stepheson, Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith -- are gone. Jio Fontan will be entrenched at point guard, Maurice Jones coming off the bench to supplant him and spend some time at shooting guard. Either freshman Byron Wesley or juco transfer Greg Allen will probably start at shooting guard and transfer Aaron Fuller is a sure bet to start at one of the forward spots. DeWayne Dedmon, a juco transfer who began practicing with the team in December, is the likely center.
Vucevic would obviously fit in as the power forward between Fuller and Dedmon. If he doesn't stay, sophomore to-be Garrett Jackson and Fuller will probably share the forward spots.
Off the bench assuming Vucevic leaves would come Jones, freshman-to-be Alexis Moore, Wesley or Moore and 7-footer James Blasczyk, a raw-to-the-max juco player from Texas. Returnees Curtis Washington and Evan Smith would also be available as well.
Does that sound all that much better? No, hence why O'Neill has said multiple times recently that next year's team without Vucevic is probably very similar to this year's, with another step of improvement a very, very tough task.
And hence why O'Neill's biggest offseason task is clearly to get Vucevic to return, although he insists he will not be focusing on it. The 20-year-old Montenegrin plans to decide whether to enter his name in the draft -- the deadline is roughly five weeks away -- within the next couple of weeks, he said Friday. If he does enter his name in the draft, he would still have until June 13 to back out and return for his senior year, assuming he doesn't hire an agent.
So, yes, it's tough to say it, but USC's 2011-2012 success will depend almost entirely on whether Vucevic returns for his senior year. He comes back, and the Trojans will be in the top three of the Pac-10 preseason poll and likely NCAA tourney participants with a chance to crack the Top 25 at some point. He leaves, and the Trojans are fighting to keep up in the conference.