USC and Montana pick up big wins in L.A.

December, 6, 2010
USC coach Kevin O'Neill didn't like the "disappointing" tag that many gave his Trojans. He thought it was premature.

And maybe it was. (Or maybe, just maybe, there were indeed several disappointing losses.)

Either way, it is still early in the maturation process for this team. But beating Texas 73-56 Sunday night is certainly a major step forward for the Trojans.

Getting Fordham transfer guard Jio Fontan eligible for the Dec. 18 game at Kansas (the same game heralded freshman guard Josh Selby becomes available for KU) will certainly help.

Playing at Tennessee three days later doesn't, not when the Trojans are trying to mask four losses already to likely nontournament teams (Rider by 20, Bradley by one, at Nebraska by one after blowing a 20-point lead, and at TCU by 12).

O'Neill said he put the Trojans through a rigorous practice slate in the days between the TCU loss and Texas game.

"We had a come-to-Jesus meeting," O'Neill said. "We gave in defensively at TCU. That's not happening anymore. The young guys know that now."

USC is leaning heavily on freshman guards Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones. It has a solid scoring forward in Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson is now playing without something protecting a broken hand.

"It just takes time with so many freshmen," O'Neill said.

O'Neill has been pumping up Fontan's arrival for months. He said he's the most talented player on the Trojans. "He'll make a huge difference for our team," O'Neill said. "It took us awhile to find an identity with these young guys but we found it [Sunday night]. If we play defense, we can win."

The problem for USC is that unless it beats Kansas and/or Tennessee on the road, the losses to teams like Rider and Bradley will haunt this team if it has visions of being an at-large. The Texas win helps, but the rest of the Pac-10 is once again void of quality nonconference wins to raise USC's overall power rating come March.

Washington and Arizona are so far the only teams in the Pac-10 that have played consistently well enough to look like NCAA teams if each can continue to perform at a similar level. Who else (if anyone) emerges behind them is still anyone's guess.

• Montana started the season 0-2 with road losses at Nevada and Utah. Three weeks later, the Grizzlies suffered their third loss of the season by dropping a four-point game at home to Portland.

Montana isn't going to be an at-large candidate. But the Grizzlies had visions of challenging for the Big Sky title again and returning to the NCAAs. That could happen without a signature win, but this group of Grizz needed something positive to occur to give them hope.

That came Sunday night in a stunning nine-point win at UCLA.

A year ago, the Grizz did beat Oregon and nearly beat Washington but were erratic in conference play. Montana coach Wayne Tinkle is banking on the Bruins win as a catalyst to find consistency with an inexperienced team.

"I don't want this season to be remembered for the year we beat UCLA," Tinkle said. "We can't have a letdown just because it doesn't say UCLA across their chest. There's no reason we can't take the same approach we had against UCLA against Great Falls [Thursday] or in Pocatello [against Idaho State]. We expect big things from ourselves."

Tinkle said he expected the Bruins to jump on the Grizzlies after they were coming off a near miss at Kansas. Instead, Montana was able to deliver the first punch and with the Bruins struggling to score, the Grizz continued to be the aggressor.

"I think we took their spirit away," Tinkle said. "We let one slip away against Portland. It was a valuable lesson. For us to turn around and win at UCLA speaks volumes about this team's toughness."

Montana's Will Cherry scored 18 to lead the Grizz.

"His confidence is growing and he is fitting into that leadership role," Tinkle said. "He's tough and can defend and sees the floor well. He's taking the pressure off everyone else scoringwise. I like our pieces."

• Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said on a conference call Monday that if the Big East were to add an 18th member in all sports (the likely candidate for that is Central Florida) instead of just adding Villanova in football and not changing the hoop membership, then the league should look at divisional alignment. Boeheim said the addition of TCU, raising the number of hoops teams from 16 to 17, doesn't make that much of a difference. And he said there hasn't been any talk of splitting the league into football and non-football-playing members.

But the addition of a possible 18th should make the league reconsider alignment.

"We have to look at two nine-team divisions," Boeheim said. "We've done it [divisions] before. We could have a true division winner and have a tournament. It's not the end of the world. The hard thing will be to determine who wants to be in certain divisions. But there will have to be hard decisions. Someone has to decide and live with it. You make hard choices to preserve football. If we go to 18 we'll have to talk about it and figure out what the alternative is. But it's still better than the alternative [of doing nothing in light of expansion in football for others]."

• Miami had its best nonconference home week under coach Frank Haith with wins over Ole Miss and West Virginia. The Hurricanes had lost an early game at Memphis, where they were down to the final few possessions with a chance to win. The other loss was at Rutgers, a defeat that Haith said was his fault. He said he never should have scheduled the Rutgers game within two days after a home game. He said travel issues were in play and his team didn't respond, saying it had no legs for the game.

"We played dead and heavy-legged," Haith said. "I didn't give ourselves a chance. We beat two really good teams this week."

Haith said that he is convinced that second place in the ACC is wide-open and that the Canes have just as good a shot as anyone else.

"We're just as competitive as Carolina and we play them once at our place," said Haith, who said Florida State, Maryland, Virginia Tech and NC State are all in the mix. "Our guard play [Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant] was excellent. And the guy no one is talking about is [sophomore wing] Garrius Adams. We're not perfect, but no team is dominant in our league except Duke right now."

• Few lower-profile programs can survive losing two key players the way Drexel has so far this season. The Dragons are without a pair of heavy contributors from last season -- Jamie Harris and Kevin Phillip -- who are facing multiple charges following their connection with an armed robbery over the summer. Neither is expected to return to the program and both players are out of school. Yet the Dragons trudged on, went on a summer tour of Turkey and now stand at 5-1 overall, with wins over rivals Penn and Saint Joseph's and a league-opening victory at Northeastern.

"Having freshmen go on that trip has a lot to do with where we are," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "We don't have depth, but I always thought we had players."

Chris Fouch, who was a top freshman in the CAA last season, is averaging 21.7 points a game.

"Our margin of error is very small but we've got good enough players to win games," Flint said.

Drexel still has road games at Syracuse and Louisville. Flint isn't banking on an at-large berth to the NCAAs. But what has been proved early on in the CAA is that there will be candidates, given the strong starts by Old Dominion and VCU. The problem is that the league is so competitive that its best teams will beat each other up, as evidenced by Delaware beating ODU over the weekend.

"Our conference is winning games against other leagues like the A-10 and ACC," Flint said. "We're physically good enough to play with Louisville and Syracuse. We won't be overwhelmed. Last year when we played Kentucky we looked like little kids. That won't be the situation this year."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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