Looking for an up-and-coming West Coast team? Watch out for Southern California.
USC -- ranked No. 22 in Wednesday's preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll -- is a team in the truest sense of the word. The Trojans are extremely unselfish, very balanced and don't have a dominant personality on the team. Ten of the top 12 scorers are back, including the top four scorers. Nine players averaged between 5.1 and 9.8 points per game last season. Seven returning players have starting experience.
The Trojans were a surprise to women's college basketball last season under first-year coach Mark Trakh, going 20-11 after a 15-13 record the year before. It was the team's first 20-win season since 1996-97. And the Trojans made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven seasons, beating Louisville in the first round before losing to eventual NCAA runner-up Michigan State by two points in the second round.
Camille LeNoir, USC's starting point guard, is an excellent distributor and was the team's second-leading scorer last season. Sharp-shooting Brynn Cameron made a school-record 72 3-pointers last season. A member of the All-Pac-10 freshman team last season, she is the team's go-to scorer.
Meghan Gnekow is the only senior on the roster, and, as described by Trakh, is USC's heart and soul. She is a good outside shooter and the best defender on the team. Gnekow also led the Trojans in rebounding, and led the Pac-10 in offensive boards at almost three per game.
Eshaya Murphy, the first guard off the bench, is a slasher who's very adept at getting to the basket. Backup point guard Jamie Hagiya has led the Women of Troy in assists in each of the last two seasons. Jamie Funn and Chloe Kerr, two part-time starters last season, will open this season in the starting five.
Simone Jelks will back up both frontcourt positions. Nadia Parker, the only key newcomer, is a highly touted 6-foot-3 freshman who plays center but has the ability to slash to the basket from the wing.
USC's balance -- and the fact it can create matchup problems -- is its biggest strength. Plus, the team's guard play is outstanding with very good depth. The frontcourt also has experience.
The biggest weakness, at least on paper, is the loss of 6-foot-5 Kim Gipson, who graduated. Now, the tallest players on the roster are 6-3, which could be a problem against teams with skilled, bigger players such as Ohio State's Jessica Davenport and Duke's Alison Bales.
Injuries, like most teams, are something else to keep an eye on as the season approaches. Cameron (hip), Murphy (ankle) and Funn (hip) are all banged up and won't be completely healthy until the beginning of the season.
Another X-factor is the team's record in close games. USC was only 7-6 in games decided by five or less points. But with all of the experienced players, the Trojans should win some of those games this season. They'll have to if they want to continue to improve and become an elite team.
Peter Newmann is the college basketball researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.