Pac-12 preview: the University of Southern California

This is the fifth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

To say Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’s first year as USC’s coach last season exceeded expectations is an understatement.

Having lived near the basement of the Pac-12 with a losing record for the last several years, the Trojans soared to a 22-13 finish and tied for fourth place in the conference. Improbably, they knocked off Stanford in the conference tournament semifinals, sending the Cardinal home without a finals appearance for the first time ever. Then USC beat Oregon State in the final, for their first NCAA Tournament berth in eight years.

How to top that? The Trojans won’t have it easy this season.

Gone is reliable leading-scorer Cassie Harberts (17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds per game), who had also been the “glue” player for USC during her four years. So is Ariya Crook (16.1 points per game), who was dismissed from the team last month. Four other players have been lost to graduation or transfer.

Three starters return: senior forward Alexyz Vaioletama (8.4 points, 6.9 rebounds per game), junior guard Brianna Barrett (6.5 points per game) and senior guard Kiki Alofaituli (5.1 points per game). Other significant returnees include sophomore guard Courtney Jaco (4.4 points per game) and senior forward Keneisha Horn (3.8 points, 3.1 rebounds per game).

The remaining three bench players – Jordan Adams, Destinie Gibbs and Drew Edelman – and five newcomers will have to step up and learn fast. Cooper-Dyke acknowledged the team will have an all-new on-court cast this year, and that they are rebuilding.

“We’ve lost two big scorers, it’s true, but we treat it much like we would if there was an injury,” she said. “We move on and need to find leadership from our returning players. We’re a work in progress this year more than others, but it really is an opportunity for other people to step up. The door is open for other players to be a big part of the success we have this season.”

Sophomore guard Alexis Loyd joins the Trojans after transferring from Virginia Tech and sitting out last year. Four high-powered freshmen round out the list of new players: Chyanne Butler, who averaged 17 points per game at Junipero Serra High School in Southern California; McKenzie Calvert of Texas, who was ranked sixteenth in the 2014 class; Kristin Simon of Windward High School in Los Angeles, who was also ranked; and another ranked player, Amy Okonkwo, who was part of the nationally-ranked Etiwanda High School team.

The Trojans will be shorter this season than in recent years, with Edelman the only player at 6-foot-4. Eight guards and five forwards are on the roster.

Cooper-Dyke also made changes to the coaching staff, adding veteran coach Beth Burns as associate head coach, and Taja Edwards, who graduated from Fresno State in 2011. The only assistant coach retained from Cooper-Dyke’s first year was Jualeah Woods, who coached with Burns at San Diego State.

USC will waste no time making adjustments, as they travel for their first game to take on SEC power South Carolina. Other pre-conference opponents include Saint Mary’s, Cal State Northridge, Sacramento State and Oklahoma State. They open Pac-12 play Jan. 3 against Oregon at home.

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