LOS ANGELES -- Dwight Lewis, Mike Gerrity, Alex Stepheson and the rest of Southern California's basketball team couldn't figure out why they were being summoned to an early morning meeting with first-year coach Kevin O'Neill.
When their cell phones lit up with text messages telling them to report to Galen Center on Sunday -- an off day -- the players figured one of them had gotten in trouble or said the wrong thing to the media.
The news O'Neill delivered was much worse.
He told them the university had imposed sanctions on the team for recruiting violations involving former player O.J. Mayo, including a ban on postseason play -- including the Pac-10 tournament -- this season. Mayo allegedly received improper cash and gifts while at USC.
"It was the hardest thing I've had to do. Telling our team that yesterday was much harder than ever getting fired," O'Neill said after practice Monday.
"It's a kick in the butt for everybody, but I especially feel sorry for our seniors."
They are starters Gerrity, at his third school since 2005; Marcus Johnson, a transfer from Connecticut; and Dwight Lewis, a rare fourth-year player who was a teammate of Mayo's in 2007-08 when the Trojans won 21 games. Those victories will be vacated under the sanctions.
"It is bittersweet because when I decided to come here I knew that I'd have the chance to play in March and that was something I hadn't done in my first four years of college," said Gerrity, whose career includes stints at Pepperdine and Charlotte.
Under Tim Floyd, the Trojans made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and had three straight 20-win seasons at a school best known for its national championship-caliber football teams.
The NCAA is investigating the allegations involving Mayo and Bush.
O'Neill dismissed suggestions the basketball program is being sacrificed to preserve coach Pete Carroll's football program.
"This whole notion about how we're supposed to be getting a penalty to help football out is ludicrous," he said. "I don't buy that at all. We're being punished for whatever happened here before."
The school cited Mayo's involvement with Rodney Guillory, whom under NCAA rules became a USC booster due to his role in Mayo's recruitment, in meting out the sanctions.
Floyd abruptly quit in June following allegations that he gave $1,000 in cash to Guillory, who helped steer Mayo to the Trojans.
Louis Johnson, a former associate of Mayo and Guillory, has previously alleged Guillory received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a sports agency that he partially funneled to Mayo.
Floyd is an assistant with the New Orleans Hornets, who were in Utah on Monday night for a game against the Jazz. He wasn't available before the game and didn't immediately respond to a request for comment made through a team official.
USC will return to the NCAA the money it received through the Pac-10 for playing in the 2008 NCAA tournament, when the Trojans lost in the first round.
The Trojans will also lose one scholarship for this season and next; lose one coach to off-campus recruiting this summer; and lose 20 recruiting days for next season.
O'Neill and a majority of the current players weren't around when the violations occurred, but they will pay.
"It's an unfair situation and it's real unfortunate," said Stepheson, a transfer from North Carolina. "I'm a little down, a little devastated about it. It's a tough hand that we're dealt and there's nothing we can do about it."
Lewis said he has no regrets about Mayo's one-and-done stint at USC. Mayo now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Having him here, it was worth it to me and what he brought to the school. I wouldn't change any of that," Lewis said. "He taught me a lot. It was worth it."
The punishment couldn't have come at a worse time.
The Trojans swept the Arizona schools last weekend to open Pac-10 play tied with Oregon for first place with a 2-0 record, their best start since 2002. Since big losses at Texas and Georgia Tech, they are on an eight-game winning streak -- including an upset of then-No. 9 Tennessee.
"It hurt," Lewis said. "It was hard at first hearing the news. I really didn't believe it. I thought it was a joke. Coming back and being around the guys today is kind of lifting my spirits."
The Trojans' season and the seniors' careers end March 6 in Tucson, Ariz., with their final Pac-10 game against Arizona.
They won't defend their title in the Pac-10 tournament -- the first time they won it was last season -- at Staples Center on March 10-13.
The only thing left to play for is the regular-season conference title, something USC has never won.
"Our motivation is come out and play our hardest and now just try to win every game and finish our season strong," Lewis said.
O'Neill said he worries more about the distractions created by the current sanctions than any future punishment the NCAA might hand down. If it happens, he dreads calling another team meeting.
"I hope I don't ever have to do that again," he said, "because when you break young people's dreams and hearts, that's hard to do."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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