July 14, 1997
USC Men's Basketball 1997-98 Season Preview
Last season, the key issue for the USC men's basketball team was "addition," as in molding a cohesive team out of a roster that included nine newcomers. USC head coach Henry Bibby worked wonders with that 1996-97 squad, directing it to the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992.
Troy finished 17-11 and its tie for second place in the Pacific-10 Conference (at 12-6) was above eventual national champion Arizona (USC beat the Wildcats once last year).
In the upcoming 1997-98 campaign, Bibby faces yet another imposing task. This time, however, "subtraction" will be the early focus as the Trojan coach, in his second full season, puts together a squad without the services of four vital members of last year's team _ swingman Stais Boseman (arguably the best backcourt defender in school history), guard Rodrick Rhodes (first-round draft pick of the Houston Rockets), forward Jaha Wilson (No. 8 all-time at USC in rebounding) and David Crouse (the only center on the 1996-97 roster).
With the departure of Boseman, Rhodes, Wilson and Crouse, the Trojans lose their top four scorers, top four rebounders and top two assist men. All four combined for 1,322 points last season, which represents 59% of USC's scoring. In addition, they combined to take down 552 rebounds, which also corresponds to 59% of the team's individual work on the boards.
Despite the harsh reality of those facts, the cupboard is not bare at Troy. Among the returnees are eight players who combined to start 66 games last season, led by junior guard Elias Ayuso and senior forward Gary Williams, who each started 21 of USC's 28 games in 1996-97. "It's going to be a younger team that's not as experienced," Bibby said. "It's going to be a learning and teaching year with all the younger players and newcomers. When you lose four seasoned players who were basically all starters, it's tough to fill that void. But, we will be a team that will be in good condition and ready to run for 40 minutes. "Last year we set a standard for what we need to do (getting to the NCAA Tournament), but the guys who got us there are gone. Hopefully the guys still here want to get back there again. If they work hard enough, they can get back there, but it will take a lot of concentration and determination. That's going to be the key for us."THE SENIORS
Four seniors, who each came to USC last season as junior college transfers, will now be the leaders of the team. The group includes Williams (Troy's top returning frontcourt player), guard Gary Johnson (started eight games at the point last season), swingman Ken Sims and forward Anthony White.
Williams, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound all-purpose forward from Bay Shore, N.Y., was a mainstay along Troy's frontline as a junior last season. He started 21 games and averaged 7.9 points and 4.0 rebounds. He also shot 76% from the foul line (third on the team). "Gary is like our utility guy," Bibby said. "He was a leader on our team and played with a lot of emotion. He can take you inside or outside. We need more all-around players like him." Johnson, a 6-foot, 170-pound speedster from Washington D.C., started eight games in 1996-97 (including USC's last four regular-season contests and the NCAA Tournament game against Illinois). He averaged 3.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals per contest. Johnson made the first start of his USC career against then-No. 6 Arizona and responded with nine points, eight rebounds and four assists in Troy's 75-62 stunning victory.
"(Johnson) won some games for us last season," Bibby said. "He has to work on playing under control and running the club. With a year of experience, he's going to come back and contribute with that leadership we need."
Sims, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound multi-purpose athlete, played in 25 games and started six times last season. He averaged 4.4 points and 1.9 rebounds. Sims, who is also a professional baseball player, started at shooting guard in USC's first three games of the season, scoring a combined 26 points (including 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting versus Loyola Marymount).
"Ken should bring stability to us," Bibby said. "He had a great first half for us last season, but then lost some focus. We feel that he's as good a three-point shooter as there is when he is on his game. He can play three positions (1 to 3) for us, which adds another dimension to our team."
White, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound post player from Jersey City, N.J., played in 19 games in 1996-97 and started twice (vs. Ohio State and at Stanford). He sat out the 1996 fall semester (the first six games of the season) while earning enough units to meet NCAA degree progress requirements. Prior to that point, White was one of USC's most impressive players.
"Hopefully Anthony can become the player we know he is," Bibby said. "He can score around the basket and rebound for you and that's what we need for him to do. Anthony was our best player last year in practice before the season began. He needs to come ready to play this year."THE JUNIORS
USC's three juniors will be instrumental in the success of the team. Two of the three are junior college transfers Adam Spanich and Philip Von Backstrom and the third is Ayuso, who solidified himself as Troy's starting shooting guard in 1996-97. Ayuso, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder from Puerto Rico by way of New York City and Roswell, N.M., provided a tremendous boost last season as a sophomore after transferring from New Mexico Junior College. He was named to the Pac-10 All-Newcomer first team after shooting .398 (49-of-123 _ No. 10 in the Pac-10) from behind the three-point line. He averaged 8.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.
"Ayuso needs to be consistent with his shot and work on getting to the basket," Bibby said. "We need him to play smarter. He had a good first year. Now, it's a matter of stepping up and improving on that start."
Spanich, a 6-foot-7, 212-pound sharp-shooter, averaged 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists last season as a sophomore at Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College. Considered one of the purest long-range shooters in the nation, Spanich connected on 47% of his three-pointers last season (92-of-195). He was Iowa's 1995 Mr. Basketball while playing at Regis High in Cedar Rapids, where he was a Top 100 prospect.
"Adam is a good outside shooter and a hard-nosed player," Bibby said. "He'll bring a Larry Bird-type attitude to our team. He's the kind of guy who will dive on the floor and give you all he has. He's a good rebounder and a fundamentally sound player and can play anywhere from the 2 to 4."
Von Backstrom, a 7-foot-2, 245-pound center, is originally from Pretoria, South Africa and also spent some time in Germany before moving on to Western Nebraska Community College. The Cougars went 32-5 this past season, captured the NJCAA Region IX championship and advanced into the quarterfinals of the Junior College National Championships. At the national tournament, Von Backstrom was rated as one of the Top 5 centers. His 7-foot-2 twin brother, George, will attend Oregon State. "Philip is a good inside player," Bibby said. "He's the big guy that we need. He needs to put on some weight and gain strength, but he plays smart and is also a good passer."THE SOPHOMORES
USC's two sophomores, Jarvis Turner and Danny Walker, both made immediate contributions last season as true freshmen and figure to be vital members of this year's squad.
Turner, a 6-foot-8, 230-pounder who earned a Pac-10 All-Freshman honorable mention selection last season, was expected to have an immediate impact for the Trojans in 1996-97 at both forward spots. However, he sat out the first six games of the regular season with a stress fracture in his back. He returned to the court against Ohio State (Dec. 21) and went on to start three games (including USC's game at UCLA). Jarvis averaged 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
"It's time for Jarvis Turner to play the way we know he can," Bibby said. "He can score inside and outside, bring the ball down the floor and block shots. If he stays focused, he can be one of the premier players in the conference."
Walker, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound gunner, is one of USC's most deadly three-point shooters. He was 16-of-42 (.381) from long range and averaged 4.9 points per game as a true freshman last season. Because of his tremendous shooting ability, his natural position is shooting guard, but he has played well at the point. Walker, who started three games early last season, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Jan. 17, 1997. He returned to the starting lineup in the victory at Washington State and scored eight points in 27 minutes and played 23 minutes against Illinois in the NCAA Tournament and finished with seven points. "Danny is a luxury," Bibby said. "He can play the 1 or the 2 and can start or come off the bench. He's a smart player who can run our team well. Danny had some knee problems last year that limited the number of games we were able to play him in. If that didn't happen, he would have made the conference's All-Freshman team. We feel that he was one of the best freshmen in the conference last season."THE FRESHMEN
All four of USC's freshmen are expected to contribute this season for the Trojans. Forward Shannon Swillis should make an immediate impact after redshirting last year. Guards Kevin Augustine and Jeff Trepagnier and forward Greg Lakey are all true freshmen who bring to USC a great deal of athleticism and promise.
Swillis, a 6-foot-6, 225-pounder from Fresno, was one of USC's three freshmen who were expected to contribute last season. However, he broke a bone in his right foot before the start of the campaign. He returned to practice in mid-January, but did not play and was redshirted. "Shannon was a guy we were looking to last year as a backup for Rodrick Rhodes," Bibby said. "The injury was a very unfortunate thing to have happen, but down the road it probably will be a good thing for Shannon. He'll come back bigger and stronger, and with a year of the college experience under his belt."
Swillis averaged 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots per game in 1996 as a senior at Bullard High (Fresno, Calif.). For his efforts, Swillis earned Northwest Yosemite League Co-MVP and All-Central Section first team honors. He was also named to the Long Beach Press-Telegram's prestigious Best in the West first team and was ranked at No. 74 and No. 76 on Bluechip Illustrated's and Van Coleman's Top 100 national high school prospect lists, respectively. "We feel Shannon is one of the most athletic people in our program," Bibby said. "Because of his athletic ability, he can play three positions and he adds another up-tempo player to our team. With a year already under his belt in the program, he knows what to expect. He's been working hard in the weight room and getting stronger." Augustine, a 6-foot, 180-pound point guard, figures to be in the thick of the rotation and could possibly start. He has the potential to be the best freshman point guard that USC has had in the past several years.
Augustine led Mater Dei High (Santa Ana, Calif.) to its sixth consecutive CIF Southern Section Division I-A championship, averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. Kevin shot 55% from the floor (211-of-385) during his senior season. His 1997 honors included All-USA Boys Basketball honorable mention, Street & Smith High School All-America fourth team, All-CIF Southern Section Division I Player of the Year, All-State Division I and Long Beach Press-Telegram Best in the West first-team. Recruiting experts Van Coleman and Bob Gibbons ranked him as the 35th and 50th prospect in the country, respectively. "He's a legitimate point guard," Bibby said. "I think he can run the ballclub for us and bring the kind of leadership that we need. Hopefully he can be the coach on the floor that I want." Lakey averaged 23.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 steals per game while leading Lynwood High to a 18-10 overall record. His 1997 honors include Street & Smith High School All-America honorable mention, All-CIF Southern Section Division I first-team, Long Beach Press-Telegram Best in the West first-team, Los Angeles Times All-Southeast and Street and Smith All-American honorable mention. During the summer prior to his senior season, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward blossomed while averaging 30 points in summer league games. Lakey also attended the prestigious ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., where he was selected as one of the Top 20 seniors.
"Greg brings a lot of athleticsm to the program," Bibby said. "He's a tremendous defensive player, kind of like a Mark Sanford-type player with a lot of skill, who can run and score inside and outside. He's the kind of guy who plays hard all the time." Trepagnier, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound guard, is another true freshman who is expected to contribute this season. He averaged 19.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 blocked shots per game as a senior in 1997 at Compton (Calif.) High. Trepagnier's honors included USA Today All-USA honorable mention, Street & Smith High School All-America high honorable mention, All-CIF Southern Section Division II first team, Long Beach Press-Telegram Dream Team, Moore League Most Valuable Player and Los Angeles Times All-South Coast League first team. "Jeff could be one of the most athletic players in the conference," Bibby said. "We feel like he was the steal of our recruiting class. I like what Jeff brings to the team. He can play three, maybe four positions on our team. He's the kind of guy who doesn't have a certain position. He just plays and adds another dimension."IN CONCLUSION
With this group, it appears as if the Trojans will have no shortage of players willing to run for 40 minutes. However, experience at the Division I level is not abundant, making preseason workouts and the implementation of the "Bibby System" just that much more important. "We want to be the smartest, best conditioned, hardest working, most professional, most unselfish and the toughest team mentally in the Pac-10," Bibby said. "In short, we want to be the team that everybody doesn't want to play."
The Trojans are faced with another challenging slate of games in addition to the always-rugged Pac-10 schedule. USC opens the season on the road on Nov. 11 at the NABC Classic in Albuquerque, N.M. against host New Mexico, which is working on a 26-game home winning streak (third longest in the country) at "The Pit." The road schedule also includes a game at Ohio State (Dec. 2) and a pair of "Freeway Series" games against two local rivals _ Loyola Marymount (Nov. 21) and Long Beach State (Dec. 27). The featured match-up in USC's non-conference home schedule is a clash with national powerhouse Kansas on Dec. 23. The other three teams that will visit the Sports Arena before the start of the Pac-10 season are UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 25), UNLV (Dec. 2) and Tennessee (Dec. 30). The Trojans open league play on the road against Arizona State and defending NCAA Champion Arizona (Jan. 3 and Jan. 5) and close out the regular season against those same teams back in Los Angeles, where Troy will have the luxury of playing five of its last seven games.