MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—DeMar DeRozan, the latest fab freshman to be featured by Southern California, approached Trojans coach Tim Floyd at his first college practice and earnestly asked for patience.
The sleek, 6-foot-7 kid from Compton came with plenty of talent and potential. The lessons learned in high school, he acknowledged, didn’t include much on playing defense or setting screens and such in the half court.
DeRozan, whose late surge helped USC win the Pac-10 tournament and draw a No. 10 seed in the Midwest region, brought the right attitude, though.
“He came in without ego, and just as a listener,” Floyd said, as the Trojans (21-12) prepared to play seventh seed Boston College in the first round Friday night at the Metrodome. “He’s just gotten better and better.”
DeRozan averaged 15 points over USC’s last 24 games, including a series of head-turning performances during the Pac-10 tourney in Los Angeles that quickly placed the Trojans on the experts’ list of low-seeded teams to watch in this year’s NCAA tournament. Against Cal, he had 17 points and 11 rebounds. In a 10-point victory over UCLA, DeRozan put up 21 points and 13 rebounds. Then in the final against Arizona State, he scored a career-high 25.
“Just brings a lot of effort. Real strong leader,” teammate Taj Gibson said. “You don’t see that much in a lot of freshman, but he stepped up to the plate. As you can see in the Pac-10 tournament, he made key plays late in the championship game. And his development? There’s more to come.”
Last year, O.J. Mayo hogged the headlines while averaging more than 20 points per game in his one and only season with the Trojans, who lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney to Kansas State. This time, with a maturing junior core consisting of Gibson, Dwight Lewis and Daniel Hackett, USC might be more balanced.
If they can get by BC (22-11), No. 2 seed Michigan State will likely await.
“I think a lot of people is betting on us,” DeRozan said, “but we really aren’t going to pay no mind to it. We just try to go out there and put in work and … give a great game.”
The Trojans sure weren’t a lock to get in until they secured the automatic bid. They went 1-6 in February to fall to 7-9 in the Pac-10, before regrouping and beating Oregon and Oregon State in their final two regular season games. Health was a problem, though. They had the entire team available for only five contests this season. Notably, Lewis missed two games to a sprained ankle in February, sixth-man Marcus Johnson sat out seven times with a strained rotator cuff, and forward Leonard Johnson was absent from four conference games because of a sprained ankle.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” Lewis said. “We had a lot of injuries this season. We’re getting healthy at the right time, and hopefully we’re able to put it together and make a great run. We’re just trying to ride this run as far as we can.”
After missing the tournament altogether last season, the Eagles have returned to the field for the seventh time in the last nine years. Floyd called counterpart Al Skinner “the best coach that nobody ever talks about.”
Skinner, well, didn’t have a whole lot to say, either, preferring not to delve too deeply into the subject of respect.
“It’s not something we focus in on,” he said, adding: “I’m not going to allow any of that to influence us. If we did, we would have ended up in 11th place in the ACC.”
They nearly beat Duke for a second time this season, falling 66-65 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals last weekend after an 80-74 win at home in February. The Eagles also defeated North Carolina and Maryland at home, but suffered a stunning loss on that same court in Chestnut Hill to Harvard.
So it’s no surprise, especially to the Eagles, that there isn’t much buzz around the country about them right now.
“That’s nothing new when it comes to us,” star guard Tyrese Rice said. “I mean, even my freshman year we were the No. 10 team in the country and still didn’t get any respect. So it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
That year, Boston College advanced to the regional semifinals and lost to Villanova—here at the Metrodome, actually. This time, there’s nothing saying that can’t happen again.
“Once you get into the tournament, anything can happen,” Rice said. “And whoever gets hot at the right time at the right point of the game can just roll on you. So it’s basically whoever gets hot.”