Relevance is always an issue in collegiate athletics. Coaches will change, players will cycle through programs and records will fluctuate year-to-year; the “what have you done for me lately” mentality will always take over eventually. Lately, all signs coming out of Hollywood and the Southern Cal campus should point to throwing up a white flag on the current season. Thanks to former Trojan O.J. Mayo and the USC booster that supplemented him with compensation as a recruit, the NCAA has been sanctioned to dismiss any postseason for USC this year. No Pac-10 tournament, no NIT and certainly no NCAA come March. As USC wallows in the mud of basketball purgatory, the team actually â€“ on the surface only I’m sure â€“ remains upbeat about its current situation; although I doubt if Ovinton J’Anthony received any Trojan holiday greeting cards this past Christmas.
USC first-year head coach Kevin O’Neill has not only been able to keep his players focused on a new goal â€“ winning the Pac-10 regular season crown â€“ he has USC playing a better brand of basketball than last year. The Trojans are currently 12-7 and tied with Arizona State to sit second atop the Pac-10 through seven games. With the conference seeing its lowest dip in talent in a long time, the race for its title has never been more open. Early pre-season favorites Cal and Washington have both struggled mightily this year (with Cal playing the better of the two) and across the board, the Pac-10 is fighting to keep its head above national water.
USC’s ability to reload so efficiently is pretty remarkable, considering coach O’Neill could justifiably have had DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett â€“ who all left school early last year (as well as freshman Davon Jefferson the year before) â€“ on his squad. Not saying anyone that in the Trojan athletic department was holding their breath for DeRozan to stay, but Gibson and Hackett still left a huge void in L.A. with their respective departures.
Senior guard Dwight Lewis leads the team with just over 14 points a game and has become Southern Cal’s go-to scorer, despite having some inconsistent outings. Former UNC Tar Heel Alex Stephenson and former Connecticut Husky Marcus Johnson have also dealt with rough shooting nights, but remain top threats for the Trojans. However, the most valuable transfer and real glue guy of USC is undeniably senior point guard Mike Gerrity, whose stop in Los Angeles marks his third Division-1 program. After stints with both Pepperdine and Charlotte, Gerrity traveled back home to the West Coast (Mike was a four-year prep starter at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif.) in search of a more comfortable playing system; in December â€“ and eight games into the season â€“ the NCAA granted Gerrity the opportunity to suit up for USC. In Gerrity, O’Neill has found the prototypical lead guard to manage the flow of his offense and a catalyst for its perimeter defense â€“ along with Lewis. The 6-1 Gerrity is not going to blow anyone away with his athleticism, but his passion for the game remains as high as anyone. In his first appearance in nearly two full years, Gerrity dropped 12 and 10 on then eighth-ranked Tennessee for a surprising 77-55 win at the Galen Center.
Gerrity has ignited USC’s early season turnaround, including an eight-game win streak that rolled over both St. Mary’s and UNLV to net the Trojans the title at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii â€“ where Gerrity garnered tournament MVP honors. USC also swept the Arizona schools to open up Pac-10 play and laid a 21-point thumping in Westwood against UCLA last Saturday. It doesn’t matter that the Bruins have lost to Portland by 27 or won at Cal this season, beating your in-city rival and conference powerhouse still means something to the guys in red and yellow. Gerrity has since cooled off from his surprising start, but it’s the cohesiveness and mentality that he brings each and every game that keeps him on the floor â€“ Gerrity leads the team with just over 36 minutes a game. On the season, he is averaging just under ten and four through 11 games.
Recently, I was able to catch up with Mike and discuss basketball, transferring and sociology, among other things, with the USC senior.
Dime: After all of the transfers, waivers and this and that, forget about the sanctions, how happy are you to be a Trojan and playing again?
Mike Gerrity: Oh man, I’m definitely the happiest I can be. Especially just to be playing again and let alone playing for USC, it’s quite an honor for me.
Dime: For those who don’t know, why did you decide to leave Pepperdine and then Charlotte?
MG: Well I left Pepperdine because there was a coaching change and I kind of felt like it was a contrasting style to the way we played and the way I did. And then I ended up leaving Charlotte as well because what I thought was going to be a good fit, for the reasons why I transferred from Pepperdine, basically ended up being the same reason at Charlotte.
Dime: What about your play makes you best suited for USC and the Pac-10?
MG: Well I think that Coach O’Neill has always stressed that he likes to push the ball and get out and go. We use a lot of ball screens and one of the problems that I ran into at Charlotte was that the rotation with other the point guard was in 20 minute rotations â€” I played 20 minutes and the other guard got to play 20 minutes. So you know, you were constantly being separated, whereas now in this situation, you’re not constantly looking over your shoulder.
Dime: Do you try to incorporate any other player’s style or influence into your game?
MG: Yeah, I mean growing up, Magic Johnson, you know that was my hero. He was the one who really got me into basketball cause I would just sit and watch videos of him and then as I got older I started to pattern my game after somebody that was at a similar physical stature. So I decided to follow Steve Nash and I love the way he plays. I always watch his games whenever I can.
Dime: Was there any transition or mental difference in switching from practice mode, which you’ve become accustomed to I’m sure, to game mode at the D1 level?
MG: Yeah I mean it’s a difference. I’ve played at the Division-I level for a couple years before this, so I know what it takes â€” physically and mentally to play at this level. But you know, I’ve been off 21 months from that so it definitely took a game really to get my feet wet and get back into it. But I had been anticipating and just awaiting the opportunity for so long that I wasn’t going to let it pass me by.
Dime: What were you feeling going into the Tennessee game?
MG: You know what, there were a little nerves at the beginning but I knew that once I made my first basket or dished out my first assist that those all were going to go away and surely they did. Once I went up and down the floor once, I felt comfortable and all the nerves were gone.
Dime: You’ve had to deal with this all at once pretty recently, but how do you react and adapt to the sanctions that have taken away the postseason?
MG: Yeah I mean it was definitely tough news to get, but you know I’m disappointed because we had the opportunity to play in the postseason, which as a college athlete that’s what you really work for. But at the same time, it’s out of my hands, it’s out of our control. So, we’re just doing whatever we can and that is to go out and try to win a Pac-10 title.
Dime: Why is it important that people still see USC basketball as a relevant entity this year?
MG: I think that people should be interested because we play basketball the right way; we play hard, we show up and try to leave everything on the court. I think it is enjoyable basketball to watch and I think that the Pac-10 championship now is our National Championship, so that’s kind of the way we’re looking at it.
Dime: How about yourself personally, what are you majoring in and what are you plans after the season ends?
MG: Well I’m majoring in sociology and my plans after the season are to hopefully continue playing. I’d love to play in the NBA and at least just give myself an opportunity to have a shot at playing after college.
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