Top 64 Countdown: No. 9 USC

Head coach: Tim Floyd
Last season: 25-12, 11-7 in Pac-10.
Postseason: Earned at-large bid to NCAA Tournament. Lost in Sweet 16 to North Carolina, 74-64.
2007-08 breakdown: Probable starters | Backcourt | Frontcourt | Offense | Defense | Outlook

Backcourt

Much of the talk about replacing three guards who each averaged double-figures in scoring last season has been overshadowed by the much-anticipated arrival of five-star prospect O.J. Mayo, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who has been a major name in the recruiting world since he began awing coaches and scouts as an eighth-grader. Mayo long was the top-ranked prospect in the class of 2007, but did see his stock fall some as a senior he wound up ranked No. 4. However, he remains a remarkable talent and a future lottery pick.

USC TROJANS
Forward Taj Gibson returns to give USC a threat on the block.

Probable Starting Five
G Angelo Johnson (freshman; Rivals.com three-star prospect)
G O.J. Mayo (freshman; Rivals.com five-star prospect)
G Dwight Lewis (5.8 ppg)
F Davon Jefferson (freshman; Rivals.com five-star prospect)
F Taj Gibson (12.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg)
Top Reserves
G Daniel Hackett (5.3 ppg)
F RouSean Cromwell (2.3 ppg)
F Keith Wilkinson (1.7 ppg)
Mayo, who will be used at the point and on the wing, has great court vision and is an excellent passer. But it's his scoring ability that will be counted on most. Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart combined to average 43.8 of the Trojans' 71.8 points a game last season. Mayo must shoot often to replace a large chunk of that firepower.

Sophomore guard Daniel Hackett was expected to start alongside Mayo, but he suffered a broken jaw in a pickup game last week. Hackett, who started 16 games last season, probably will be sidelined until mid-December. Thankfully for the Trojans, freshman point guard Angelo Johnson received positive news from the NCAA Clearinghouse standards in September. Johnson has great speed and, at 19, is well-prepared for making the transition to college after spending a year in the prep-school ranks. He may be asked to start immediately in place of Hackett, and he should play significant minutes even when Hackett returns.

Sophomore shooting guard Dwight Lewis also will play a major role. A 6-5 slasher, Lewis was a steady part of the rotation last season.

Frontcourt

The hype surrounding Mayo has overshadowed the return of sophomore big man Taj Gibson, possibly the team's best player. Gibson's play on the inside was a vital part of the Trojans' run to the Sweet 16 last season. He averaged 12.2 ppg and led the team with 8.7 rpg and 1.9 bpg. Gibson posted a pair of double-doubles in the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-10 has an extraordinary amount of good post players, making Gibson's presence even more important.

Versatile freshman forward Davon Jefferson might be the best recruit no one seems to be discussing. Jefferson was a five-star prospect from the 2006 class who, like Mayo, has plenty of NBA potential. The 6-8 newcomer has the size to aid Gibson on the inside and the skills to be a dangerous scoring threat.

The coaches are hoping junior power forwards RouSean Cromwell and Keith Wilkinson show some improvement and add to the team's depth.

Offense

The offense will revolve around Mayo, regardless of where he ends up playing. The Trojans need Mayo to be a go-to scorer from Day One. Jefferson and Gibson are capable of being solid No. 2 options.

Defense

This is where losing Pruitt will hurt most. A superb perimeter defender, Pruitt led a defense that allowed opponents to shoot only 39.0 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from 3-point range last season - numbers that ranked first in the Pac-10. Without someone to provide the kind of on-the-ball pressure that Pruitt did, look for opponents to have an easier time scoring against the Trojans this season.

Outlook with postseason forecast
With as many as three freshmen set to start, a lot of critics like to talk about the Trojans' youth. But it would be more accurate to say they're inexperienced. Johnson is 19. Mayo will turn 20 before the season starts. Jefferson turns 21 next month. Gibson is a 22-year-old sophomore. This team is much older than it appears. It is also oozing with talent. Mayo is a one-and-done player. Jefferson and Gibson will leave for the NBA before their eligibility is exhausted. The backcourt lacks depth, but the Trojans will make a legit run at the Final Four if Mayo stays healthy.

Shoes to Fill

Nick Young. You can make a case for Pruitt, but Young gave the Trojans an offensive weapon that defenses had to game-plan around last season. He was second in the Pac-10 in scoring (17.5 ppg).

Must Step Up

Mayo. If the Trojans are going to get back to the Sweet 16, they need their star recruit to average 18-20 ppg

Impact Newcomer

Mayo is the obvious choice here, but don't forget about the explosive Jefferson. He also will be in the mix for freshman All-American honors.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 64. Coming tomorrow: No. 8.


 

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