Revamped USC ready for more

SAN FRANCISCO -- Never let it be said that Cynthia Cooper-Dyke doesn't know how to make an entrance into a room.

USC's women's basketball coach is by nature a noisemaker.

She entered the interview room at the Pac-12 headquarters Wednesday prepared to talk to the media about her Women of Troy and their preparations to start a new season and build on last season's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.

But first, Cooper-Dyke had to take a selfie with senior forward Alexyz Vaioletama, trying to line up the media in the background for a group photo-bomb. At another point, she offered to sing a little something.

Cooper-Dyke's first season in the Pac-12 was hardly quiet, either. She led her alma mater through an up-and-down first season and then to a Pac-12 tournament title. She changed the fortunes of the Women of Troy as a perennial just-coming-up-short team to one that can reasonably expect to be in the NCAA field.

"We want to have a winning mentality at USC," Cooper-Dyke said. "We've had it, I've had it. It's really a winning passion."

On the surface, one might have expected Cooper-Dyke to take her program into the offseason prepared to build on the solid foundation she laid last spring, when USC went 22-13.

Instead, Cooper-Dyke took a jackhammer to the foundation, releasing most of her coaching staff and hiring coaching veteran Beth Burns, herself no shrinking violet.

"It's all about getting better," Cooper-Dyke said. "And I had to make changes in my staff for us to get better."

Cooper-Dyke said Burns not only matches her energy every day, but exceeds it. And she complements the head coach's strengths on the floor.

"She loves defense and I love offense," Cooper-Dyke said. "I've been around women's basketball for a long time, but I've only been coaching for 10 years and I don't know what I don't know. But I do know where to go find it. And I found it in Beth Burns."

Burns, USC's associate head coach, was the head coach at San Diego State twice, each for two eight-year stints. In between, she spent five years as the head coach at Ohio State. Burns left San Diego State in April 2013 under controversial circumstances (it was alleged that she struck an assistant coach with a clipboard during a game) and filed a wrongful termination suit against the university this past February.

But Burns, whom Cooper-Dyke portrayed as a coaching partner and resource, has a long history of success as a head coach. At SDSU, she was 295-186 overall and took the Aztecs to seven NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010.

"She keeps me organized and motivated," Cooper-Dyke said.

And then there was a major change that Cooper-Dyke didn't anticipate: the dismissal of leading returning scorer Ariya Crook. The 5-foot-7 guard was dismissed in September for a violation of university and team rules. Crook led USC with 15.8 points per game in 31 games last season and was named MVP of the Pac-12 tournament following USC's victory over Oregon State in the title game. Crook also led the team in 3-pointers.

Crook's absence, paired with the graduation of team leader Cassie Harberts, have forced the Women of Troy to look to new people and wait to see who might emerge.

"I didn't see it coming, but we have to be great at adjusting," Cooper-Dyke said of Crook. "I believe that, as a program, we need to make adjustments. The same thing could have happened with an injury. For us, it was a big hit.

"For me, it's about stepping up to the challenge. As a player, I had the opportunity to step up at USC and at the pro level."

"I learned that even if we are the only people in the gym that believe we can succeed, that is enough." USC coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke

At that, Vaioletama flashed a knowing smile. She knew what was coming next from her head coach -- a little blast from the past, or, perhaps more accurately, another one.

"I just want to remind everybody that when I got to the [WNBA's] Houston Comets, Sheryl Swoopes was pregnant and we won a championship that year," Cooper-Dyke said. "That's how you make adjustments: You don't accept anything less."

The opportunity is there for Vaioletama to assert herself as a go-to player, along with senior guard Kiki Alofaituli. Senior Kaneisha Horn, a transfer from Alabama, will anchor USC inside.

And Cooper-Dyke called out redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Adams, a highly touted recruit who underwhelmed in her first full season, playing in 35 games but averaging just 2.8 points.

"We need Jordan Adams to wake up and step up to the plate," Cooper-Dyke said. "She's an incredible talent and she's got a great personality, and I think she's as anxious as anyone to get out there and erase what happened and how she played and to show what she's capable of doing."

Vailoetama has learned the importance of getting a little better every day -- and that Cooper-Dyke's expectations are high.

"Whether it's sitting in the defensive stance for another five seconds or boxing out for another two seconds instead of trying to grab the rebound, it's the small things," Vaioletama said.

Cooper-Dyke, for her part, said she's learning patience. To a point.

"I learned that even if we are the only people in the gym that believe we can succeed, that is enough," she said. "... I learned how strong the Pac-12 is and how I want to be the upper echelon of the Pac-12. I want our team to experience the NCAA tournament every year. It's something that should be our mentality and our standard.

"I love winning, but I don't think I learned that. I knew that before."