by Ken Pomeroy on Thursday, January 3, 2013
If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you have figured out that I do not like Kevin O’Neill’s coaching style. He is often referred to as a brilliant defensive coach. Indeed, O’Neill’s track record indicates as much. His teams have been consistently able to prevent points pretty well. Like Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, his reputation is artificially enhanced by the slow pace of his teams, but there’s still a lot of substance there. It should be required, though, that when someone cites O’Neill’s defensive ability, they also indicate that he is a rather hideous offensive coach.
When Kevin O’Neill was hired at USC it didn’t make a lot of sense. His resume is not one that would scream out for a potential hire at a Pac-12 school. He had success at Marquette in the early 90’s and seems to have lived off that. From there he went to Tennessee which didn’t work out so he bailed to Northwestern, which ended in an 0-16 Big Ten record three years later. From there, his next head-coaching job was with the Toronto Raptors where he lasted one season. Then there was the weird season at Arizona, filling in for Lute Olson in 2007-08, where he actually had a team that scored a bunch of points and wasn’t so obsessed with defense. But he ticked off a bunch of people and was not retained.
So it surprised me when USC hired O’Neill four years ago. (The press conference featured then-AD Mike Garrett indicating that O’Neill was chosen in part because “defense wins championships”. You know what else wins championships? Offense. You need ‘em both and O’Neill is only really good at coaching one of them.) It is one thing to hire someone that has been fired or run-off in multiple places. It’s another to hire a person like that the employs a boring style of basketball. It would make more sense to hire an up-and-coming assistant that plays an effective and entertaining system and that can coach offense and defense.
But now, I find myself needing to defend O’Neill. The hawks are circling in his fourth season. After a 5-8 start, O’Neill is officially on the hot seat. And this brings me to my pet peeve with college basketball analysis – people ignore schedule strength. USC could have played the schedule that Arizona State or Utah played and be 12-2 right now. USC would be 5th or 6th in various Pac-12 “power ratings” being published because hey, look at all those wins, and look at that coach, defensive genius and all. And yet, the Trojans would be exactly the same team they are now. Instead, O’Neill scheduled a bunch of games against teams that are similar to or slightly better than USC. So they’re last in everyone’s “power ratings” and people are comparing their stats to other Pac-12 teams as if that’s fair given the scheduling disparities.
Anyway, the whole point here is not to defend the quality of USC’s team. They’re probably not going to have a winning record in Pac-12 play. Given the talent on hand, this season should be another indictment on O’Neill’s inability to coach an offense and he may well get fired at season’s end. (Although, if USC’s history is any indication, he’ll either get fired three weeks before the season ends, or three weeks before next season begins.)
But USC probably isn’t the worst team in the Pac-12, either. The first two months of USC’s season are an example of what’s wrong with how the media evaluates teams. O’Neill could have taken the cowardly way out, scheduled a bunch of buy games, racked up a slew of meaningless wins and avoided his team being labeled “disappointing”. When you lament how many non-competitive buy games dot the national schedule next November and December, think of Kevin O’Neill. In this environment, why would anyone who worries about his job security schedule interesting games?