Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
In the midst of an eight-game losing streak (seven games of which have come during Pac-12 play), you'd be hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the USC men's basketball team's 2011-2012 season. But, as junior guard Daniel Munoz illustrated with his 12-minute performance at Oregon State last Saturday, sometimes the story worth talking about has nothing to do with wins or losses.
Three years ago, Munoz walked on to the Trojan basketball team with no expectations of ever playing. In his mind, the Coto de Caza native was fulfilling a greater calling.
"I still wanted to be a part of the game of basketball," Munoz recalled. "But when I got to USC, I wasn't sure if that was going to be as a player. I always wanted to be a coach, though, so I thought walking on to the team would give me an opportunity to keep learning the game from some of the best coaches in the country. I saw the growth I had in high school as a player and as a person thanks to my mentor and coach Jody Gardner. And I wanted to have that kind of impact on kids in the future."
While Munoz' three-year experience at USC has been more educational than physical, the former standout from Santa Margarita HS slowly transformed into the kind of player head coach Kevin O'Neill has always admired: smart, disciplined, tireless work ethic and someone who does his talking out on the court.
During his first two years at Troy, Munoz took his lumps as a walk-on, watching as guards Donte Smith, Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones enjoyed the Galen Center spotlight, while he was tasked with going up against them day in and day out during practice.
"I never really thought about the playing time as part of my role, so there haven't been many struggles," said Munoz. "My job is to make my teammates better every day, regardless of who it is. And I hope I've done that."
This season, the Trojans have been decimated by injuries, most notably to starters Jio Fontan (torn ACL) and Aaron Fuller (shoulder surgery). When O'Neill's short-handed squad went up north to face the Oregon schools last weekend, Munoz' years of selflessness and patience had finally paid off.
In USC's hard-fought 65-62 loss to the Ducks, Munoz, who made three brief appearances in 2010-2011, played 27 minutes at the point guard position and notched his first two career points as a Trojan from the free throw line. Because of his ability to play mistake-free basketball, Munoz was given his first career start two nights later in Corvaillis, OR. While the Trojans were blown out by 19 points against Oregon State, Munoz made the most of his 12 minutes of action, hitting his first career field goal attempt on a three-point shot late in the first half.
"I am still shocked really," said Munoz. "Last weekend was such a dream. I'm speechless. Especially against Oregon State, to get a chance to start in a game and then to hit a three-point shot, I couldn't contain the smile on my face as I came down the court. I can't believe it happened and there is no way to describe it. I never thought a day like that would come."
Although Munoz' addition to the rotation hasn't cured the Trojans' current woes in 2012, his journey to the court is still a remarkable story. It's a reminder that the term walk-on sometimes is nothing more than a label.
"When you are on the team, you are on the team," said Munoz. "I've never looked at it like I'm a walk-on. My goal is to continue to get better, to continue making the people around me better players and more accountable and selfless as teammates. There is nothing better than giving yourself up for the good of the team."