O'Neill to keep USC staff intact

June, 29, 2009
The only difference you'll see at USC as far as the coaching staff is concerned is Kevin O'Neill standing where Tim Floyd used to in front of the bench.

The coaches behind him will all be the same.

Although it's not official, O'Neill did confirm he is retaining assistants Phil Johnson, Gib Arnold and Bob Cantu.

That's a significant move, considering those three are largely responsible for securing a number of the top talents USC has recently had under Floyd.

"I feel comfortable with all of them," said O'Neill.

The USC situation is unique in that the Trojans hired a coach who wasn't coming directly from another program, so the transition from one staff to another should be rather seamless. Johnson and O'Neill have known each other for decades. They both coached under Lute Olson, albeit not at the same time.

Johnson is a contemporary of O'Neill's and should serve him well as a trusted sounding board. Arnold has plenty of recruiting contacts not just in the West but globally, and he may be searching for a point guard since O'Neill has made that the No. 1 priority for the upcoming season now that the Trojans are without Daniel Hackett (who left to play professionally) and Lamont Jones out of Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.).

USC released Jones from his national letter of intent and watched as Jones latched on to Arizona and new coach Sean Miller. Miller has landed three former USC recruits in Jones, Derrick Williams (a power forward from La Mirada High in California), who like Jones got out of his letter of intent, and former USC recruit Solomon Hill (a forward from Fairfax High in Los Angeles).

Evan Smith, a small forward from Calabasas High in California, is the only remaining recruit left from the Trojans' original top-five recruiting class (which also included Renardo Sidney, now off to Mississippi State). O'Neill said Smith is staying put.

According to O'Neill, most of the returnees from last year's squad are expected back. Senior guard Dwight Lewis (14.4 points per game) should be the top scorer, North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson should be the anchor in the post and Marcus Simmons (1.9 ppg) and Leonard Washington (6.1 ppg, 4.2 rebounds per game) should be the defensive bruisers on the wing.

Keeping Arnold on the staff should mean that forward Nikola Vucevic (2.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg) will return. The same is true with center Mamadou Diarra (0.4 rpg). O'Neill has already recognized that this squad has much more of a tough, defensive-minded approach -- something Floyd had instilled -- and should be a better match for his personality than the more finesse squad he inherited at Arizona, which included Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill.

Senior Marcus Johnson (3.1 ppg), who won a waiver earning him a sixth year of eligibility after an injured shoulder limited him to just 16 games last season, declared for the NBA draft, then withdrew, then declared again. But he wasn't selected and now there is a chance he could be back at USC. The staff was noncommittal as to whether or not he will officially be back. They are also still waiting to confirm if backup point guard Percy Miller (0.2 assists per game) is returning, as well.

The staff seems energized by the O'Neill hire (keeping your job certainly helps) and committed to recruiting top-tier talent to USC. USC remains one of the best jobs in the country because of its proximity to elite talent, the resources at a football-rich university, top-level facilities in the Galen Center and SoCal as a recruiting destination.

The only negative right now, and it's a big one, is the ongoing NCAA investigation into the recruiting and one-year tenure of former player O.J. Mayo. No one knows if and when the NCAA will issue a notice of allegations. Until then, the O'Neill regime is going on as status quo, dealing with the departures of a highly touted recruiting class and preparing to still be a thorn in the Pac-10 race.

• Miller's additions of Hill, Williams and Jones to an Arizona recruiting class that also includes former Xavier recruit Kevin Parrom of South Kent (Conn.) and hotly-contested center Kyryl Natyazhko (Pitt and Xavier were recruiting him) of the IMG Academy in Brandenton, Fla., puts Miller's class right behind his good friend John Calipari of Kentucky for best late-signing class in the country. Both schools could easily be in the top five to 10 regardless of when their players were signed.

The Arizona pickups and the play of the Washington State tandem Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto at the Under 19 USA Basketball trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., two weeks ago means there should be a shakeup in the Pac-10 preseason predictions. I would still go with Cal and Washington at the top, but there will be an extremely tough chase for third on down among Arizona (remember, Nic Wise is back), Washington State, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon, with USC still lurking in the mix if it figures out a way to put points on the board.

The Trojans should still be a tough defensive team. It's hard not to push Stanford and Arizona State down to the bottom based on what everyone has coming back. The Sun Devils lost two players selected in the top 31 picks in this year's NBA draft in James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph. The Cardinal, meanwhile, lost key seniors Mitch Johnson, Lawrence Hill and Anthony Goods.

• Sometimes you get a player when you least expect it, when there is almost no recruiting done and it can be a season-changing get. That's what happened when Oklahoma State got John Lucas III after the Baylor tragedy. Villanova landed Scottie Reynolds after Kelvin Sampson left Indiana for Oklahoma. Kansas wasn't expecting to land Brandon Rush after he withdrew from the NBA draft out of high school. Now Memphis has just picked up Duke guard Elliot Williams because of extraordinary circumstances.

Williams' mother is ill and that's why he's leaving a good situation with the Blue Devils. Trust me, no one leaves Mike Krzyzewski for Josh Pastner. That's not a knock on Pastner. He knows that. That's just reality. Williams will now appeal to the NCAA to play immediately instead of sitting out the one-year-in-residence requirement. A year ago there were a number of these cases and the NCAA rejected the majority of them -- Jordan Crawford (Indiana to Xavier), Alex Stepheson (North Carolina to USC), Herb Pope (New Mexico State to Seton Hall) -- with the exception of a select few like Julian Vaughn, who transferred from Florida State to Georgetown.

It's hard to judge how a person should handle this type of situation. No one did it better, though, than Kevin Coble of Northwestern, who truly took the semester off to be with his mother during cancer treatment in her home in Phoenix. When she was done with the treatments, he returned to Northwestern for the second semester. Coble was by his mother's side during her entire ordeal.

Having Williams home in Memphis should do well for his family, as well. Pastner is smart enough to always put Williams' family first. He's not the type of person who would demand Williams be at practice if there was a conflicting appointment for Williams' mother that he felt he should attend. Expect Pastner to do the right thing by Williams and his family. Had Williams transferred to Tennessee, Kentucky or even Vanderbilt, still a decent day's drive, it would have been harder to justify considering a waiver for him to play right away, since he wouldn't be in the city where his parent was ill.

Lance Stephenson's sexual assault case was adjourned until July 15, according to ZagsBlog.com, a blog based in New York City. The hearing at the Brooklyn Criminal Court that also involves high school teammate Darwin Ellis, is based on an allegation that occurred last fall outside Brooklyn's Lincoln High.

The Sporting News reported over the weekend that Stephenson visited Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a scholarship open. This is the deal: If Stephenson is cleared by everyone involved -- the courts (i.e. a plea deal to a misdemeanor or charges dropped) and the NCAA eligibility center -- then the Bearcats seem to be the most likely destination.

Stephenson's talent isn't in question, but in the past few months Kansas, Memphis, Arizona, Maryland, St. John's, Florida and even Florida International have been linked in some form to his recruitment. As of now, Cincinnati may be the last school standing. With or without Stephenson, the Bearcats are primed to be a sleeper in the Big East. The Bearcats will get former Oklahoma State center Ibrahima Thomas eligible in mid-December and added expected impact players such as shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick and point guard Jaquon Parker to go along with redshirt freshman Cashmere Wright, who was out last season with a torn ACL in his left knee.

Wright is projected to be the starting point guard for the Bearcats. The Bearcats already bring back their top two scorers -- Deonta Vaughn (15.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Yancy Gates (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) -- after going 8-10 in the Big East, 18-14 overall. If Stephenson were to go to Cincinnati and he can mesh with the aforementioned players, it wouldn't be unrealistic to consider the Bearcats a Big East title contender.

• This week, Holy Cross is bringing to campus its two finalists to replace departing coach Ralph Willard: Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney comes in on Monday, and Pitt associate head coach Tom Herrion comes in on Tuesday. Willard left the head coaching gig to be an assistant on Rick Pitino's staff at Louisville. Kearney has never been a Division I head coach, while Herrion had a solid stint at the College of Charleston before he was abruptly forced out. Herrion is from Worcester and has strong New England ties. Kearney has been at Notre Dame under Mike Brey. A move from Notre Dame to Holy Cross, two similar institutions, would make sense. Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan said last week he wanted a head coach in place by July 1, which is Wednesday. So his timing is on track. Holy Cross is the best job in the Patriot League.

• The U.S. team at the World University Games split its first two exhibition games in Serbia, beating Canada and then losing to host Serbia over the weekend. We'll see if Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) goes with the same starting lineup for the tournament later this week, but the first five against Serbia was an interesting mix. He went with Corey Fisher (Villanova) at the point (one assist, zero turnovers, 12 points) and then went big with Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia), Lazar Hayward (Marquette), Trevor Booker (Clemson) and Deon Thompson (North Carolina). Ohio State's Evan Turner and Oklahoma State's James Anderson, the two shooting guards on the team, came off the bench and provided some scoring pop with 16 and eight points, respectively.

The bench also had point guard Talor Battle (Penn State), Robbie Hummel (Purdue) and Quincy Pondexter (Washington). What was even more intriguing is that two of the players with the most NBA buzz had the least amount of minutes -- Iowa State's Craig Brackins (11 minutes, 1-for-3 shooting, five fouls, two points, two turnovers) and Mississippi State shot blocker Jarvis Varnado (nine minutes, 0-for-2, two rebounds, two fouls, one turnover, one block and one steal). The U.S. shot only 5-for-19 on 3s in the 98-82 loss.

• Two omissions from my 2010 potential draft list were Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Tulsa's Jerome Jordan. Reynolds declared for the 2009 draft and then went back to school. He wouldn't have been in the first round and it's unclear if he would have been selected in the second. The wealth of point guards in this draft meant Reynolds didn't have a chance in the first round and may have gone undrafted. He'll have a shot, at least in the second round, in 2010. Jordan should be one of the better true centers in the 2010 draft. He still needs to be much more of a dominant presence in the post and could put more meat on his bones. But he'll be in the mix to climb into the first round next year.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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