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Pac-12 preview: the University of Southern California

This is the twelfth in a series previewing the Pac-12 teams

From the moment former Trojan great Cynthia Cooper-Dyke was named the program’s new head coach last spring, she was embraced by fans, players and season ticket holders with excitement and enthusiasm. Cooper-Dyke was a great player and competitor, to be sure. But she has also been a fine coach, and the tenor she has set in her first six months at USC’s helm seems to be a departure from traditions of recent years.

At open practices the last weekend in October, fans saw what they had only heard about: Cooper-Dyke conducting technical sessions, in which she taught the whole way through. They saw Cooper-Dyke the motivator, pushing players through drills with her urgency and positive reinforcement when they did something correctly. Her energy and excitement are contagious.

“We like to get up and down. I do like exciting basketball,” Cooper-Dyke said. “I like to get out on the fast break. I like to do stuff defensively that allows us to do the fast break. Be aggressive defensively.”

But it all starts with structure.

“At the same tim,e I’ve learned that you have to be disciplined,” Cooper-Dyke said. “For example, if you run into a team that plays great defense, you’re going to have to learn to play offense in a half-court setting. So you’ve got to be able to execute in the half court – that’s big time.”

Cooper-Dyke lead the Trojans to two national titles in 1983 and 1984, and was an Olympic gold medalist before entering the WNBA, where she won four Championships with the Houston Comets. Since her retirement from the league, she has coached professionally and at the college level. Most recently, she coached at Texas Southern University, where she turned the program around and guided them to a conference title. Cooper-Dyke hadn’t planned to leave, but when the job opened up at her alma mater, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“It was an easy decision to choose USC, but it was a hard decision to leave TSU because of my ties to Houston and a wonderful athletic director, a wonderful program, coaching staff and players,” she said. “But it was an easy sell to come back to USC with my Trojan family, and all of the promise with the program. And then I’m back home. I’ve learned so much, and USC taught me so much, so for me to be coming back home is great.”

If there is any pressure on her to captain the Trojans back to championship form, she seems to be oblivious to it – perhaps because she puts so much pressure on herself. Watching Cooper-Dyke coach is like watching a tornado bear down. She doesn’t let up.

In recent years, as USC teams have fallen short of expectations, fans could be heard wondering aloud how a team with so much talent could be sputtering along. This season Cooper-Dyke will have a chance to demonstrate the difference, as the Trojans lost only one starter and letter winner.

Four starters return: forward Cassie Harberts (18 ppg, 8.2 rpg), forward Kate Oliver (5.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg), guard Kiki Alofaituli (4.9 ppg), and guard Brianna Barrett (4.4 ppg). Key reserves who are also back include guard Ariya Crook (13.4 ppg), guard Jordan Adams (5.3 ppg), forward Alexyz Vaioletama (4.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and guard/forward Desiree’ Bradley (3.3 ppg).

Three newcomers could make an immediate impact for USC. Courtney Jaco was ranked 45th among guards in the 2013 class, and Drew Edelman was ranked 41st among forwards. Junior forward Kaneisha Horn is a transfer from Alabama, where last year she averaged 8.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg. Clearly, Cooper-Dyke has the personnel. She started over the summer with the basics.

“We built from a fundamental stand point,” she said. “We learned fundamentals like ballhandling, passing, cuts for offense, different moves.”

Cooper-Dyke said players embraced her approach, and really got into strength and conditioning.

“It’s almost like they’ve been thirsty to learn more about lifting and getting stronger, and how that translates on the court and into longevity in the game of women’s basketball,” she said.

The Trojans kick off the season Friday, at UC Davis. Other preconference opponents will include San Diego State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, and Iowa. USC kicks off Pac-12 play Dec. 30 against arch rival UCLA.

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