The only surprise about USC's decision to fire Kevin O'Neill as head basketball coach was the timing. Many basketball analysts saw it coming at the end of the season, but making the move now is certainly justified.
It's not that O'Neill is a bad coach. I actually think he's a pretty good one. He's extremely knowledgeable and he gets his players to work hard. However, USC basketball has become dormant in the past few years and the program desperately needs an injection of new energy.
USC may not have the history and tradition of many elite basketball programs, but it is a sleeping giant. An extremely well-downed private university with some of the best athletic facilities in the Pac-12, USC has the potential to have a power basketball program.
After building the Galen Center, USC basketball was steadily becoming just that under Tim Floyd. The Trojans made the NCAA Tournament in three consecutive seasons from 2007-09 and had a roster with future NBA players like OJ Mayo, DeMar DeRozan, and Taj Gibson. Then the program quickly fell apart.
First, Floyd unexpectedly interviewed for the Arizona head coaching job less than 24 hours after telling his team they could compete for the Final Four in a year. Then many of his top players went professional. Afterward, Floyd lost virtually all of a top recruiting class that included Derrick Williams. Former Athletic Director Mike Garrett soon forced out Floyd in the middle of the summer, leaving USC with few quality head coaching options. They went with O'Neill, which was a fairly uninspired choice at the time. I personally thought they should have hired Reggie Theus. Regardless, Garrett further crippled the basketball program by giving it self-imposed sanctions, in a futile effort to curry favor with the NCAA on its football investigation.
Despite all this, O'Neill miraculously guided the Trojans to the 2011 NCAA Tournament (although to be honest, I didn't think they deserved to be in that year). Last year, O'Neill's team suffered more injuries than I've ever seen a basketball team endure, and the Trojans went a putrid 1-17 in the Pac-12. This year, O'Neill had essentially turned USC into Transfer U, with a whopping 10 transfers on the roster. With a team of castoffs from other schools, and a fairly difficult schedule, USC has slumped to a 7-10 record.
But on-court performance alone doesn't explain O'Neill's firing. Attendance at Galen Center has plummeted. Interest in the program is back down to where it was in the Sports Arena days. And Trojan basketball barely registers a blip on the LA sports scene today. Even though O'Neill is a good coach, it's clear he doesn't have the "it" factor to bring USC to high level of prominence.
USC basketball may not have history, but they have the resources to bring in a dynamic coach who can reenergize the program. Unless Bob Cantu has a remarkable second half as interim coach, I expect USC to be in the running for several up-and-coming head coaches at mid-major schools who make strong runs into the NCAA Tournament.
There are some other names that could make sense. I'm sure USC will express interest in Randy Bennett from St. Mary's. They will probably reach out to Jamie Dixon at Pitt again, although I'd be surprised if he left. Josh Pastner of Memphis, who is a former Arizona assistant, would have to be high on their list too. Those guys may be reaches, but USC may be able to offer enough money to snag them. I could also see USC making an out-of-leftfield hire like Mike Brown, and I'm sure many other quality candidates will surface between now and the end of the season.
Either way, USC basketball is capable of being exciting. Firing Kevin O'Neill was a necessary step for the Trojans to reach their potential.