You had to be there on Jan. 11, 2003 to see rock bottom.
As stunned fans spread across the decrepit Forum looked on, Penn spent the first half of a nonconference tilt with USC making the Trojans look completely ridiculous. After 20 minutes of wide-open 3s and dunks pouring into their basket as if it were a funnel, the Quakers were up 26 at the break and had shot 87.5 percent (21-of-24) from the field. About all that was missing was for the voice-over guy from NBA Jam to scream, "He's on fire," as flames trailed another net-bound Quaker shot. Penn went on to win by 38.
After witnessing that performance firsthand, it wasn't hard to understand the Trojans' decline in their last couple of seasons under Henry Bibby. More often than not, USC played And-1 rather than D-I defense, indifference that peaked in 2004-05 when the Trojans, on their way to a 12-17 finish that ended Bibby's run, allowed their opponents to collectively shoot a searing 47.1 percent from the field.
Given all that, though, it is extremely hard to comprehend that, after just a year and a third under new coach Tim Floyd, USC now sits as the second-best team in the country in defensive efficiency.
Feel free to take a minute to carefully separate your jaw from your desk.
Not many saw this coming -- or even know it's happened. USC's defensive improvement has tended to go unnoticed; the Trojans play a lot of late-night (for East Coast readers) games on Fox regional networks that are not widely accessible. They also had an extremely hectic offseason off the court. Between the tragic killing of point guard Ryan Francis, the first-semester academic ineligibility of leading scorer Gabe Pruitt, the year-early arrival of point guard Daniel Hackett, the opening of the brand-new Galen Center on campus, and the landing of prep superstud O.J. Mayo as the centerpiece of a great 2007 recruiting class, how the Trojans did on the court this season seemed secondary.
Instead, USC's defense under Floyd has rapidly evolved from sieve to statistically elite and has been the leading force behind the Trojans' 9-2 start. They are allowing a paltry 0.787 points per possession and also are second in the country in 2-point field goal percentage allowed (35.9 percent) and effective field goal percentage (38.0 percent, accounting for allowing only 27.8 percent shooting on 3s).
Sure, at this still-early point in the season, schedule can have an impact on overall statistical output, but USC's slate hasn't been terrible. Among the Trojans' 11 opponents thus far are South Carolina, St. Mary's, Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount, Kansas and George Washington. Schedule also can't be the only factor in holding 10 of your first 11 opponents under 40 percent from the field, or holding seven of those teams to their worst shooting night of the season, or for lowering your team's overall field goal defense by almost 15 percentage points in the span of about 40 games. Think about that -- USC opponents now miss an extra shot for every seven they take compared to just two seasons ago.
So what gives? Well, for starters, Floyd took over a program that had only a small number of players returning (but included current leading scorers Nick Young and Lodrick Stewart). That gave him a chance to immediately put his imprint on the Trojans, especially on how they defended.
"We have emphasized the defensive end since Day One," Floyd said. "We didn't pull off the rebounds a year ago, but personnel has changed that. ... We put time in on it. Defense starts with defensive transition. You have no chance to defend unless you get five guys ahead of the ball, and we do that every day for 20 [minutes, in practice]. At the same time, it allows us to work on the offensive transition part of the game. We believe the game is played full-court.
"What we're starting to see after a year is that [the players] don't mind that [defensive] identity," he added. "They take pride in it. They're asking questions about [the opponent in pregame preparation], which we never saw a year ago."
That both-ends philosophy is pretty clear when you look at the Trojans' numbers this season. USC plays at a high pace (55th in the nation) and is virtually last in the country in percentage of field goals attempted that are 3s, indicating (in part) a significant amount of transition offense. On defense, they are fairly adept at not fouling while they draw fouls in good quantity at the offensive end.
What makes the Trojans' stingy defensive performance even more remarkable, though, is that they are doing it despite coughing the ball up on an awful 25.9 percent of their possessions, a number that ordinarily would imply a huge number of run-outs and easy baskets for the opposition. Even though that hasn't happened yet, the sheer number of turnovers -- and the Trojans' seemingly lax attitude about them -- has Floyd more than a bit concerned.
"I think the last part of the equation is getting them to value the ball on the offensive end," he said. "Typically if you are playing that hard defensively, you won't turn it over on the offensive end because you know how hard you had to work to get the ball."
With five freshmen and a sophomore in the top nine in minutes played, youth definitely is part of the issue. The Trojans also don't have a true point guard on the roster, which also hurts.
Floyd hopes his youngsters get the hint sooner rather than later, but suspects that it might take some bumps in Pac-10 play to fully get the message through.
"I think when you're winning games, it might take us losing a little bit to get that figured out," Floyd added. "We're winning right now and there doesn't seem to be any urgency toward correcting [the turnover problem]. ... Being able to defend has allowed us to hang around in games, even with the number of turnovers."
Nonetheless, the additions of Hackett, a fierce competitor who has sublimated his own offense for the good of the team, and Taj Gibson, a rugged forward who already has six double-doubles this season, have allowed USC to establish much more ball pressure defensively and to limit opponents to one shot per possession way more often than last season.
USC's opponents are taking notice, too. City rival Loyola Marymount is off to a solid 8-5 start this season and features a high-level talent in Brandon Worthy, yet the Lions were shackled by the Trojans, shooting just 15-of-54 (including a 1-of-12 from Worthy, who is averaging 18.5 ppg) in a 67-50 loss. That's just a year removed from Loyola's two-point home defeat to the Trojans last season, performances that LMU coach Rodney Tention thought were night and day.
"I think they really have bought into defending you first and scoring second," Tention said. "Their kids have really bought into that now. ... They face-guard, they use their quickness, they get great pressure on the ball. They're better this year than they were last year. They're really long ... Daniel Hackett leads the way and [Lodrick] Stewart is out there. When they get [Gabe] Pruitt back, they'll be even better defensively.
"I enjoy watching them play defense, although not when we played them," Tention added with a chuckle. "Their defense will keep them in a lot of games. They have a lot of offensive weapons ... once Gabe comes back, they'll be real good, [but] when they are struggling on offense, they'll still be hanging around [because of their defense]."
Pruitt, who averaged 16.9 points per game last season, is expected back Friday night for the Trojans' meeting with Kansas State.
Floyd also noted that the hardest thing about the Pac-10 this season was that no one knew where their wins were going to come from -- a tip of the cap to the league's excellent talent and depth. It's now also true that when you play USC, you have no idea where your baskets are going to come from. If you were there for any part of the back end of the Henry Bibby era, that in itself is quite a shock.
Nuggets (with a side of context)
• We mentioned yesterday in Kyle Whelliston's piece on Stephen Curry that Curry's 13 turnovers against Eastern Michigan were the most by one player in a game this season. What Kyle didn't mention is that Curry also has a 10-turnover game on his ledger, meaning he's provided two of the 11 double-digit turnover games in D-I this season. Why is this relevant to this week's column? One of the three players tied for second, with an 11-turnover game, is the aforementioned Taj Gibson, who did the deed in the Trojans' 72-62 loss at Kansas. The most recent inductee into the double-digit hall? Kent State's Omni Smith, who as a byproduct of his career-best 14-for-20, 33-point night at Duke kicked the ball away 10 times in the Golden Flashes' 79-72 loss Wednesday night. Don't think his teammates are getting on him too much for those, though.
• In the same vein, only four players have recorded double-digit blocks in a game this season. On Saturday, Alabama's Jermareo Davidson, fresh off his reinstatement after the end of the first semester, made a valiant run to become the fifth, swatting nine Southern Miss shots in the Crimson Tide's 77-64 win. One measly block also kept Davidson from notching a triple-double the hard way, as he also had 25 points and 11 rebounds.
• Last week, we touted the virtues of Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll's shooting stroke. When you mix in big men, though (and eliminate Greg Oden and others who have played in only three games or fewer), the most accurate shooter in the land is Texas-Arlington's Jermaine Griffin, who is connecting on 71.4 percent of his field goal attempts. The 6-foot-9, 240-pounder isn't racking up huge numbers in blowouts, either. All four of UTA's wins this season have come in Griffin's four biggest scoring outbursts, and the three of those over D-I opponents have been by a combined total of 10 points. The latest of those was Griffin's career-high 27 points in a one-point win at UC Riverside on Monday. Note to the Mavericks: You might want to feed your man inside a bit more consistently -- unless the ball's going to fellow forward Anthony Vereen, who is shooting 58 percent himself.
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him with comments. Some of the data used in this column is from midmajority.com and kenpom.com.