USC-Tennessee: Kevin O'Neill's return

Kevin O'Neill coaches Tennesee for three seasons in the early 90's and compiled a 36-47 record. AP Photo/Danny Moloshok

What do Lane Kiffin and Kevin O'Neill have in common?

Well, first of all, they are friends. And they're colleagues at USC, where O'Neill coaches basketball and Kiffin football.

But they're also fellow escapees of the University of Tennessee, with both men jumping ship with years left on their contracts to coach another school.

The similarities pretty much end there. While Kiffin left in January to replace Pete Carroll and take his "dream job" at USC, O'Neill fled UT for Northwestern in 1997 after a feud with his athletic director.

At 4 p.m. PT today, O'Neill returns to Knoxville for the first time since his departure, but it doesn't exactly sound like it's the first thing on his mind -- "I don't have any feelings one way or another," he said last week, before admitting that he felt he had improved the program dramatically during his three years there -- considering the circumstances.

Those circumstances? O'Neill's team lost in heartbreaking fashion on the road to Kansas on Saturday and now faces the prospect of heading back to Los Angeles with a 0-2 road trip, 6-6 overall record and little-to-no qualifications for an NCAA Tournament bid.

So yes, tonight's game at No. 18 Tennessee is important to them.

O'Neill will have Jio Fontan available for the second straight game -- Fontan having made his debut against Kansas to solid, if not great, reviews, with 15 points and five turnovers -- but the coach will need a great gameplan instilled to account for one clear Volunteer advantage: size.

Tennessee has plenty; USC has little. Who will guard Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum?

Trojan defensive stopper Marcus Simmons will be on one of them -- likely Hopson, the better scorer. O'Neill has admitted this year that Simmons plays better defense when defending better players.

But Tatum will, for much of the game, have to be defended by either the 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones or the 6-foot Fontan. 6-foot-5 freshman Bryce Jones will play some for USC, but his offense has struggled recently. He went 0-for-6 from the field against the Jayhawks and didn't score a point. Reserve guard Donte Smith has been ultra-effective on the offensive end of late, but, at just 5-foot-11, doesn't solve any of the Trojans' likely defensive problems.

And then there's Tobias Harris, the 6-foot-8 point guard in a power forward's body, who will often sit out at the wings and drive to the hoop. The freshman is averaging 15 points per game this season.

Who will guard him? Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson both have the necessary size, but neither has anywhere close to Harris' lateral quickness.

So, while Tennessee has dropped down 11 spots after two straight losses to Charlotte and Oakland, the Vols are much better equipped to face this Trojans' team than the Tennessee unit that came to Los Angeles a year ago only to be embarrassed by USC, 77-55, in Bruce Pearl's worst loss at UT.

As for what Pearl reportedly told a group of UT boosters last month about his recent transgressions and how Kiffin's presence made them easier to hide, O'Neill said he hadn't heard Pearl's comments until it was mentioned to him by a reporter.

And hey, Kiffin's presence is a blessing, he joked.

Said a smiling O'Neill: "I'm glad Lane's here. That's all I got to say on that."

The game will be broadcast live on Prime Ticket in Los Angeles. We'll have postgame analysis afterward.

Notes: Sophomore forward Evan Smith is out for the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that will require surgery. Smith originally suffered the injury last season; it limited him for much of the year then as well. He had not appeared in a game this season. ...Two other players are still nursing injuries for the Trojans: Simmons and Stepheson. Simmons has had a sore heel for much of the season but is expected to start. Stepheson fractured his left hand last month and is still wearing a doctor-prescribed brace on it.