USC coach O'Neill talks national championship

There is one coach at USC who doesn't mind talking about a national championship before playing a single conference game, and it's probably the one coach on campus who has the least business doing so.

Before opening Pac-10 Conference play with a 56-50 win over Arizona on Thursday night, USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neilll brought up the two words Pete Carroll has long avoided uttering until the end of the season.

"National championship."

National championship?

You can almost hear Jim Mora in the distance repeating the phrase a dozen times as if someone had asked him about the playoffs.

This was a team that was picked to finish ninth in the conference, lost three players to the NBA, lost five players from a highly touted recruiting class after firing Tim Floyd and is still under NCAA investigation.

USC's offseason read like a bad college basketball remake of "The Replacements" or "Necessary Roughness." A down-on-his-luck coach is hired to turn around a down-on-its-luck program full of down-on-their-luck players who have nowhere better to go. Somewhere along the way, they find an aging leader who has been passed over and forgotten about and go on to do the impossible.

He might not look a thing like Keanu Reeves or Scott Bakula, but Mike Gerrity is that leader for the Trojans. If they are to engineer a Hollywood-like ending to this unlikely script, he is their leading man.

Gerrity, the 23-year old, fifth-year senior who has been at three schools in the past three years, has completely changed the Trojans since stepping onto the court this season. He is the fast-forward button on a team that looked as if it was finding its way in slow motion before he became eligible to play before USC's game against Tennessee two weeks ago.

O'Neill knew that Gerrity would spark the Trojans once he returned after sitting out the first eight games after his transfer from Charlotte (he began his college career five years ago at Pepperdine), but even he couldn't foresee the team beating then-No. 9 Tennessee in Gerrity's first game and then-No. 20 UNLV less than a week later to win the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Suddenly, a team that was projected to win probably nine games total is already 9-4 and riding a seven-game winning streak.

If no one believed the Trojans were for real after they recorded the Pac-10's only two wins over Top 25 teams, Thursday's conference opener offered the rest of the country (and certainly the Pac-10) a glimpse at a team that won't be overlooked for long.

Despite Gerrity's worst game as a Trojan (4 points and 5 turnovers), USC showed that it doesn't have to depend solely on the playmaking ability of its 6-foot-1 point guard to win. The Trojans got 28 combined points from Dwight Lewis and Marcus Johnson and held Arizona to 30 percent shooting from the field.

Gerrity, however, did team up with Johnson for the highlight play of the game: a flick of the wrist alley-oop pass Johnson dunked en route to USC's building a 17-point first-half lead.

It was the kind of play that has highlighted USC's current winning streak. On a team filled with players who individually might not be talented enough to play at other schools, the eight-man rotation O'Neill is leaning on this season has learned to play with anyone in the country as a team.

"Collectively, we can score when we move the ball but we're not very good one-on-one," O'Neill said. "We don't have a ton of playmakers and one-on-one players. We have to count on moving the ball and running our stuff and doing things efficiently rather than doing it on our own."

Some coaches will take teams on retreats or resort to hokey gimmicks to help their teams bond, but nothing brought this group closer than the roller-coaster offseason that saw players leave in droves and head coaches avoid the job opening like a disaster site.

"We're a tight-knit team with everything that happened over the summer, with all the allegations," said Lewis, one of three seniors on the team. "We kept together as one team, and we have great chemistry. These are the guys that stayed."

Three recruits who left as soon as Floyd was fired finally played at the Galen Center on Thursday, and they found out firsthand what they are missing. Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones were three of the Trojans' top incoming players in the offseason but backed out of their commitments in the midst of the NCAA's investigation of the program and went to Arizona.

Considering where both programs are now (Arizona, which was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10, is 6-7) it was like divorcing your spouse just before he or she won the lottery.

The Trojans haven't won anything yet, but if you talk to O'Neill long enough, he isn't shy about telling you what he thinks they are capable of winning if they continue playing like this.

"He thinks we're a national championship team" Gerrity said. "He sees everything that we see in each other. He saw what we could do against really good teams, and he knows if we bring our A-game, we can play with anybody."