Hungry for the chance

He was -- if anybody was counting -- probably USC's fourth or fifth choice. Which is the kind of fact you generally would not say to someone's face or joke about unless you know him well.

But for some reason nothing much seems uncomfortable to talk about with Kevin O'Neill, who became USC men's basketball coach in June.

"I know I wasn't their first choice,'' he jokes while sitting courtside at the Galen Center after a recent practice. "I know I wasn't my wife's first choice either.''

There was talk of Reggie Theus or Jeff Van Gundy, or even a fanciful dream of luring Jamie Dixon away from Pittsburgh.

Then came their embarrassing public denials of interest in the job from those candidates.

Then, and only then, came a video on USC's Web site one Saturday morning announcing that O'Neill would be its new coach.

"If people did shy away from this job for some reason, I'm glad they did because I wasn't shying away from this job at all,'' O'Neill said at his introductory news conference last summer.

O'Neill was being kind. There was no "if'' about it. He was about the only reputable coach in North America who would touch the Trojans job with a 10-foot bounce pass.

Tim Floyd had just left the program amid a cloud of controversy, the NCAA had launched an investigation into possible misconduct in the recruitment of O.J. Mayo, three underclassmen -- DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett -- had bolted early for the NBA and recruits were fleeing the scene faster than paparazzi chasing after Brangelina's darkly tinted sports utility vehicles.

By the end of the hiring process, it almost seemed as though USC was trying to talk coaches into taking the job instead of the other way around.

The only guy who genuinely seemed to want the job was O'Neill, who had taken a job as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies after being unceremoniously dumped at the University of Arizona after his trial run as successor to Lute Olson didn't go smoothly.

At the time, it was easy to assume O'Neill wanted the USC job because it was probably his last best shot at the big time. A desperate school found a desperate coach.

Which might be true.

But after the way the Trojans opened this season, there seems to have been another reason for O'Neill's interest.

Despite everything -- the transfers, the scandals, the injuries -- USC is actually pretty good.

Maybe even really good.

The Trojans (8-4) open Pac-10 Conference play today against Arizona on a six-game winning streak.

They own the conference's two wins over ranked teams this season, having upset then-No. 9 Tennessee on Dec. 19 and then-No. 20 UNLV on Christmas Day to win the Diamond Head Classic title in Honolulu.

And they seem to be getting better with each win.

So what did he know back in June that nobody else did?

O'Neill: "I just thought, after seeing a few game tapes and watching them a little bit, I thought that if [point guard] Mike [Gerrity] was a player and Leonard [Washington] could get eligible, we had a chance to be competitive. And I wanted our guys to have an expectation that we were going to compete and be disappointed if we didn't compete.

"I don't think we're a great, great team," he added. "We have a long way to go. But we play hard, play together, and these guys pull for each other all the time.''

Though everyone has a theory, what seems to be happening is that O'Neill inherited a group of players who were as hungry for an opportunity to prove themselves as he was.

Gerrity, who was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week after averaging 14.8 points and 4.3 assists in his first four games since becoming eligible on Dec. 18, is attending his third school since 2005.

Washington just regained his eligibility last week.

Junior center Alex Stepheson sat out all of last season after transferring from North Carolina. He wanted to be closer to his family in Southern California while his father was ill.

Everyone else who stuck around basically did so only because they didn't have better options.

"I'd be lying if I told you it didn't cross my mind a few times,'' senior wing Dwight Lewis said about leaving USC amid the turmoil of last spring.

"I had a couple of my friends asking me why I didn't get out, why I didn't get the first thing moving out of SC, but I wanted to stay. I'm one year away from my degree, I want to graduate for my parents and myself, so I decided to stay.

"Then I met KO and he's a great coach. Me and him got along from the beginning, so I was like, 'Why not stay?'

"Everybody had all these bad expectations, and we just didn't really listen to them. I kept telling people that we'd have a great team, just wait and watch.''

The waiting part actually took a while.

During fall practice, there were times when USC couldn't even field a scrimmage.

"There might've just been like seven or eight guys out there at times,'' Stepheson said. "Everyone was hurt or ineligible. We had a lot of walk-ons out there. But we struggled through it.

"We got through it. Nothing good ever happens unless you struggle first.''

But the questions linger: Has USC finished its dark period? Is it time for something unquestionably good to happen at the Galen Center? Or is the other shoe still about to drop?

O'Neill says he honestly doesn't know.

The NCAA investigation could resurface. A key player could get hurt. USC might just be on a roll right now and about to come back down to Earth.

But one of the reasons why USC hired O'Neill -- aside from the fact that he was available and eager -- is that he's seen a lot worse in his career and seems to excel in salvage projects, having done so at Marquette, Northwestern and Tennessee.

It's a simple formula, he says: Work from 5 a.m. until midnight every day, go to church every morning, recruit like your life depended on it, prepare like your life depended on it, and dwell only on what's immediately in front of you and not what looms in the distance.

"I've coached uphill a lot of times,'' he said. "I'm not scared off by challenges. When I looked at SC, the only negative we had was the investigation. We have a great arena, great tradition athletically and academically, great location. To me, it was a great job and I wasn't going to let a few things scare me off from what can be a really good situation. ''

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com