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September 26, 2008
Not only did the Trojans lose star O.J. Mayo (No. 3 pick in the NBA draft), but also point guard Angelo Johnson, who started 11 times and averaged 23 minutes per game. Johnson transferred to Southern Miss after coach Tim Floyd wouldn't promise him a starting job.
Forward Taj Gibson is USC's leading returning scorer and rebounder.
Lewis, a 6-foot-5 wing, has the size and the game to be a go-to scorer, and word is he has gotten in great shape in the offseason. Lewis had some big games last season, but he was too inconsistent. The Trojans need him to shoot the ball better from the outside and average 12 to 15 points per game.
The Trojans are counting on junior college transfer Donte Smith and Connecticut transfer Marcus Johnson to create some depth. Smith is a 5-11 point guard who will get a chance to play immediately and could start if Floyd chooses to go with a small lineup. Johnson, a 6-6 wing, is a former top-100 prospect who averaged 5.5 points in 2006-07 for the Huskies. He won't be eligible until the end of the first semester, around mid-December.
The addition of five-star swingman DeMar DeRozan allows the Trojans a chance to match the kind of success they had last season. The No. 3 overall prospect in the 2008 class, DeRozan has the ability to replace much of Mayo's scoring and some of the rebounding lost with the departure of forward Davon Jefferson - who also left school early but went undrafted. Extremely explosive and athletic, DeRozan excels at attacking off the dribble and making plays around the basket. DeRozan needs to be a go-to scorer, and the Trojans need to take advantage of his presence now because he probably will be in the NBA next season.
Big man Taj Gibson was expected to have a breakthrough year last season, but his scoring average dipped slightly from 12.2 to 10.8. Defensively, Gibson was superb, making it difficult to score on the inside and often shutting down opposing post players. Gibson led the Pac-10 with 2.5 blocks per game. If Gibson can develop into a steady scoring threat on the inside – the absence of the trigger-happy Mayo may help in that area – the Trojans will be a serious threat to do some damage in the NCAA tournament.
The Trojans have a slew of other big men with the return of veterans Kasey Cunningham and Keith Wilkinson, who have been role players in the past. Depth will also be helped by the additions of 7-foot redshirt center Mamadou Diarra and true freshman Leonard Washington.
They have also added North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson, who could be eligible immediately. Stepheson applied for a hardship waiver because he moved back to the Los Angeles area to be close to his sick father.
Diarra will come off the bench, but any of the others could start alongside Gibson. All of them – providing Stepheson is eligible – probably will see some minutes.
The Trojans will be looking for a more balanced attack minus Mayo. DeRozan and Lewis will get the bulk of the shots, and each needs to average well into double figures. Someone needs to emerge as a reliable scorer off the bench as well.
SHOES TO FILL
Mayo. The Trojans will miss Mayo's scoring prowess, but his playmaking abilities and defense were underrated. He led the Trojans in assists and was their top perimeter defender.
MUST STEP UP
Lewis. He broke the 20-point barrier twice last season, scoring 24 in a win at Oregon and 21 in a victory over California. He must have a lot more performances like that for the Trojans to get back to the NCAA tournament.
DeRozan. He should be in the mix for national freshman of the year honors. He has the physical tools to be an NBA star and is joining a team that needs him to carry much of the scoring load immediately.
Andrew Skwara is a national basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.