Pac-12 preview: University of Southern California

This is the sixth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

USC fans will have quite an adjustment to make this season, as eight of the 15 players on this year’s roster are newcomers. Not to mention that Coach Michael Cooper has three new assistant coaches. There are so many new faces in practice that you could justify the use of name tags.

But that isn’t even the big story. More important than having half a squad’s worth of new faces is that there is an entire team on the floor at practices. For the first time in years, the injury-plagued Trojans are beginning the season healthy.

“We’re finally a healthy team – that’s the biggest thing,” said Cooper, who enters his fourth year at the helm. “We are 9-10 players deep right now, and that’s a nice start.”

Even before Cooper was hired, USC has had injury troubles – perhaps most notably in former star guard Jacki Gemelos and former forward Stefanie Gilbreath. Both sustained multiple ACL tears that kept them sidelined, literally for years, including Gemelos’ mid-season tear last December. Gemelos had been one of the team’s top scorers, and the injury not only ended her college career, but it hurt the Trojans.

USC’s bench last season always had five or six players on it. Cooper acknowledged this year’s difference at a recent mid-week practice.

“Even in practices, you’d see five or six people on the sidelines, on the bike or shooting because they were injured and couldn’t play,” he said, and gestured to the floor teaming with athletes. “This is nice.”

What else is nice for the Trojans is that they have a lot of quality players.

Two starters are back: junior forward Cassie Harberts (11.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and senior forward Christina Marinacci (8.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg).

Other top returnees are sophomore point guard Ariya Crook and sophomore forward Alexyz Vaioletama. Both began their freshmen season as key reserves, but they had to step up big after Gemelos was injured. The development of the games of both players was apparent by the end of the year.

Junior guard/forward Desiree’ Bradley and senior forward Dominique Scott also return for USC.

Newcomers include freshman guard Jordan Adams, who was a McDonald’s All-American and helped USA Basketball win a few gold medals during her high school career. Junior Kate Oliver transferred from Marist and sat out last year, as per NCAA regulations.

Sophomore Kiki Alofaituli was a teammate of Vaioletama’s and Adams at Mater Dei High School. She had signed to Arizona State, and asked to be released from her Letter of Intent after Coach Charli Turner Thorne announced her sabbatical. They refused, so Alofaituli sat out last year. Now, having three athletes who have played together before could benefit the Trojans.

Brianna Barrett is a celebrated guard from Oaks Christian High School, just outside of Los Angeles. Guard Destinie Gibbs was a spring signee, and comes from Georgia, where she helped guide her team to three straight state championships.

Other freshmen are guards Malia Cravens and Rachel Totten, both of Los Angeles.

Returning from injury are freshman forwards Deanna Calhoun and Thaddesia Southall. Both sat out last year with knee injuries.

Cooper said he’s seeing a lot of talent in practice, and an ability to play together.

“A lot of the kids can play multiple positions, and we have good chemistry,” he said. “We have a lot more options, and it’s making the coaching staff come up with a lot more options for them.”

USC hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, which may be why they hired three new assistant coaches for Cooper last spring: Daron Park, who is associate head, Evan Unrau and Tai Dillard. Cooper said each has brought strong, unique contributions to the program that are working.

At a recent practice, players went through a variety of drills before transitioning to scrimmages, where the two teams split the wins. As they did that day, players gather after every practice and can speak if they wish. Cooper said he encourages players to voice their thoughts due to what he learned from Coach Pat Riley.

“He always said that there’s things happening out there on the court that (the coaches) can’t see,” Cooper said. “I want players to feel like they have a voice.”

Some of the Trojans’ main goals this year will be to have strong defense and be tops on rebounds.

“I want us to be one of the top seven defensive teams in the country.” he said.

Cooper is continuing his tradition of having a strong preseason schedule. USC will face Gonzaga, Nebraska, San Diego State, Texas A&M, Duke and Vanderbilt before conference play.

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