Despite sanctions, USC basketball tries to persevere

1/10/2010 - USC Trojans

BERKELEY -- She has been checking for signs, as you would expect a wife to do in the first few days and weeks after her husband learned of such a disappointing decision.

Lack of sleep? Depression? Anger?

USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill would be entitled to any of these emotions.

The painful self-imposed sanctions leveled on O'Neill's surging program by the school have been sinking in to all their guts in the days since USC athletic director Mike Garrett informed O'Neill of the decision.

So Roberta O'Neill has stayed close by her husband's side, attending the team meeting last Sunday in which he informed the players of the sanctions, traveling to the Bay Area on Tuesday as the Trojans (10-6, 2-2) prepared for games against Stanford and California, and checking in on him as much as she could.

But other than the ashen look on his face when he first told her of the sanctions last Saturday night at their downtown L.A. apartment, and the obvious pain he felt when telling the team last Sunday morning, not much has seemed off.

"It definitely took all of us back," she said. "He was incredibly disappointed. But he's been coaching for a long time. He's accustomed to road blocks and disappointments.

"The only option is to keep going. Honestly, it's seemed like he's just in work mode. Maybe even more in work mode."

Which is pretty much how O'Neill and his team seemed to react to their second straight loss Saturday night, this time a 67-59 defeat to California (10-5, 2-1) at Haas Pavilion.

O'Neill talked about missing open shots during a 20-3 Cal run in the second half and about the need to regain defensive focus when the team gets back home this week to prepare for UCLA. He lamented the extra day his team had to spend in the Bay Area because the normal Thursday schedule had been altered by the BCS title game.

He talked about basketball first and the sanctions second.

"The timing of us going on the road for a week was in line with the sanctions, but the sanctions had nothing to do with these losses. We just lost these games," O'Neill said.

"If you look at these last two games ... We're playing. That's not the thing at all. We just didn't finish.

"In the Stanford game, we had three shots to win in the last five seconds. If Nikola (Vucevic) makes that tip (shot), this is a whole different trip."

Still, a victory this weekend would have gone a long way toward making everyone feel OK.

Not better, just OK.

The sanctions are a part of life now, a new reality that barely seems real.

"I've been getting a lot of text messages and people on the street just coming up to me, apologizing for how the sanctions worked out,"
junior forward Alex Stepheson said. "There's nothing I can do except say I'm sorry too.

"I know people are going to look at it like (USC is quitting after the sanctions), but that's not the case. We just lost two games. We're going to bounce back strong and hopefully just continue to keep winning.''

For seniors such as point guard Mike Gerrity, the Trojans' new reality is especially cutting. USC is Gerrity's third college. He's 23 and out of eligibility after this season. Now, no matter what, March 6 is his last collegiate game.

His first reaction to the news fell somewhere between anger and sadness. But in the moments where other emotions and thoughts come in, Gerrity has found a way to refocus.

"I think I'm just looking forward to each game," he said. "You can't take any games for granted because you know they're kind of dwindling down. So I'm just trying to make the most of each one that I have the chance to play in."

After Saturday's loss, USC has 14 games left.

Across the aisle, California coach Mike Montgomery could only shake his head at the Trojans' plight and offer a few words of compassion.

"Why does everything have to be about postseason? Why don't we enjoy the games as we play them, the competition we have?"' Montgomery said.
"It should be a big deal to go out and play a game.

"I don't know how that affects them one way or another. I think SC's kids are tough kids, they compete very well. I know Kevin O'Neill is a tough guy. I don't know what kind effect it has one way or another. I think when the game starts the juices start flowing and you go out and compete."

On the surface, that's exactly what USC did this weekend in the Bay Area.

One foot in front of the other, one dribble at a time.

"That's all you can do," Roberta O'Neill said. "Just move forward. Kevin's a purist. He just really loves this game and I think that's what he's focusing on."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.