By Jon Rothstein
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I’ve seen a slew of college basketball practices this preseason but none were as vicious as USC’s. Watching the Trojans’ rebounding drills was like having a first row seat to the Roman Coliseum when Russell Crowe was in Gladiator. Kevin O’Neill has always had exceptionally tough teams wherever he’s coached throughout his career but you get the feeling this group has an extra edge since they only won six games during all of last season. USC has a real chance to make one of the biggest jumps in college basketball in terms of overall wins from one year to the next.


I can say without hesitation that Jio Fontan, J.T. Terrell, and Dewayne Dedmon will all likely start for USC — but beyond that is a mystery. The Trojans are beyond loaded at small and power forward and are still waiting to hear from the NCAA about the status of Rice transfer Omar Oraby, who could receive a waiver to play this season. In addition to the 7-2 Oraby, O’Neill has a bevy of options to choose from. Wake Forest transfer Ari Stewart is probably this team’s best athlete at 6-7 while Renaldo Woolridge has big game experience from his time at Tennessee. Aaron Fuller finally looks healthy after suffering a shoulder injury last season and should be in the mix for major minutes at both power forward and center. Skilled wing Byron Wesley and UC Irvine transfer Eric Wise are two other potential options for the Trojans next to Fontan and Terrell on the perimeter.


All teams need a glue guy and Wise could fit that bill for USC. Roughly 50 pounds lighter than he was when he played at UC Irvine, the 6-6 forward is exceptionally chiseled and boasts a strong basketball IQ. A terrific passer in the open floor and talented enough to lead the break, Wise has already played in 83 college games and averaged 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game two years ago in the Big West.


O’Neill said he expects to hear this week from the NCAA on Oraby’s status and if the 7-2 big man is cleared to play this season than things could really change for the Trojans. With Oraby and Dedmon, USC would have two legitimate 7-footers and O’Neill said the plan is to play both of them together in the starting lineup. Oraby averaged six points and 3.6 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game last season at Rice.


It may take some time for this team to truly define their roles. There’s no questioning the overall talent O’Neill has assembled on this roster but other than Fontan, Terrell, and Dedmon there doesn’t seem to be any guarantees for set minutes. A vicious non-conference schedule should allow O’Neill and his staff to tinker with different lineups and find out what works best for the PAC-12. The Trojans are in the Maui Invitational and host Long Beach State, Minnesota, Dayton, and San Diego State. USC will also play road games at Nebraska, Georgia, and New Mexico.


The intrigue factor is definitely there with USC. Fontan and Terrell are two big time talents in the back court and the depth O’Neill has up front is staggering. The Trojans have the pieces to finish in the top half of the PAC-12 and push for a place in top third but they’re going to have to find their chemistry somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This team is talented but they’ve never played a full season together, something that could be obvious early. Still, the elements are in place for a strong season and a trip to the NCAA Tournament certainly isn’t out of the question.

Who will round out USC’s starting five? Be heard in the comments below…


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