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September 24, 2009

Stepheson has no regrets about leaving UNC

North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson insists he never got caught up in what might have been as he watched his former team win the national championship.

The memories he gained over the past year outshone any jewelry he could have earned.

"I had no regrets," said Stepheson, who's now at USC. "I was just purely happy for those guys and excited for them. It just made me more excited for this year. I'm looking forward to playing."

Stepheson, a former top-50 prospect from Harvard-Westlake High School in North Hollywood, Calif., spent the first two seasons of his college career at North Carolina. He averaged 4.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 14.5 minutes per game as one of the key reserves on the Tar Heels' 2008 Final Four team.

But after learning that his father had a heart ailment, Stepheson left North Carolina to return to his Los Angeles home. He selected USC over other southern California schools in part because his mother graduated from USC's law school and his sister earned her undergraduate degree from USC.

Now that he goes to school just 15 or so minutes from his home, he returns as often as possible to visit his dad and feast on his mother's cooking. He has done everything he can to help out his father, who is feeling better now after changing his diet.

"He just made a big difference in all our lives by coming home," said Stepheson's father, Art Stepheson. "We hated to take him out of North Carolina because that was his first choice and basically our first choice, but circumstances sometimes change and you have to change with the circumstances."

The NCAA granted a waiver this year to allow Elliot Williams to avoid sitting out a season when he transferred from Duke to Memphis to be closer to his ailing mother. Tyler Smith also didn't have to sit out a year when he left Iowa for Tennessee to be near his dying father.

Stepheson, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, didn't get a similar waiver and had to sit out a year. He spent the 2008-09 season working on his overall game, assisting his family and watching his former North Carolina teammates make their run through the NCAA tournament. Now he is eager to show how much he improved during his layoff.

"It feels like it's been forever since I've been able to get on the court," said Stepheson, the No. 41 prospect in the 2006 recruiting class.

The team Stepheson will be playing for bears little resemblance to the team he originally joined. After USC ended its 2008-09 season with a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament, the Trojans looked like a team that could open the 2009-10 campaign in the top 10. Virtually the entire nucleus from the 2008-09 team was eligible to return.

Since then, little has gone according to plan.

Starting forward DeMar DeRozan, starting center Taj Gibson and starting guard Daniel Hackett left school early to turn pro. Coach Tim Floyd resigned in the wake of a Yahoo! Sports report that he had paid money to "handlers" of guard O.J. Mayo, who played one season at USC before turning pro.

All that upheaval has left senior guard Dwight Lewis as the Trojans' returning player who started at least half the team's games last season. Instead of being picked to finish in the top 10, USC now is expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10.

"We're still very high on ourselves," Stepheson said. "We think we can have a good run this year, that we can be a good team, really competitive and can win some games.

"A lot of people are doubting us because we lost some players, but I think that just makes people on our team more competitive and more motivated to prove a point that we can still be a good team. Personally, I feel more motivation to prove people wrong."

Stepheson said he also is looking forward to playing for new coach Kevin O'Neill, who has a reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who isn't shy about using profanity to get his point across.

O'Neill previously served as coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. He spent the 2007-08 season as an interim coach at Arizona, where he reportedly clashed with former Wildcat stars Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger.

Stepheson said he talked to Bayless, Budinger, former Arizona forward Jordan Hill and current Arizona guard Nic Wise after the hiring. Although Stepheson said he got mixed feedback from the Arizona players, he offers the new coach rave reviews.

"When he came in, he had that reputation for being a yeller and I didn't really know much about him besides that," Stepheson said. "When he came in, we talked and I got to know him. So far, he's been a pretty great coach. He's motivating everybody and working hard. I have nothing but good things to say about him."

He also has nothing but good things to say about his former teammates. Stepheson said he remains friends with former teammates such as Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson. Stepheson talked to them frequently and cheered for them throughout their drive to the national championship. The experience whetted his appetite for the upcoming season.

After watching his former teammates thrive on college basketball's biggest stage, Stepheson eagerly anticipates his own return to the spotlight. Having his family in the stands for every home game will only make it that much sweeter.

"It means a lot that they're going to be able to see me play," Stepheson said. "I'm able to be there for them and they're able to be here for me, supporting me. It makes a difference being in your hometown and playing for the local college. It brings a sense of pride.

"It's just a good feeling."

COMING TO A SITE NEAR YOU?

The NCAA Division I men's basketball committee announced on Monday the sites for the 2011, '12 and '13 NCAA tournaments.

First- and second-round sites in 2011 are Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Tulsa, Okla.; and Tucson, Ariz. Regionals will take place in Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; San Antonio; and Anaheim, Calif. The Final Four will be at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

The 2012 tournament will hold its first and second rounds in Albuquerque, N.M.; Louisville, Ky.; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; Columbus, Ohio; Greensboro, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn; and Omaha, Neb. Regional hosts are Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Phoenix. The Final Four will be in New Orleans.

First- and second-round sites in 2013 are Auburn Hills, Mich.; Lexington, Ky.; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; and Philadelphia. The host for the East Regional hasn't been determined, but the other three regional sites will be Dallas, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Atlanta will play host to the 2013 Final Four.

TIP-INS

How's this for bad timing? Less than two months before its Nov. 13 season opener at VMI, Army reportedly has fired longtime coach Jim Crews. Army officials haven't commented on a report in the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y., that Crews has been let go after seven seasons. Although he was just 60-139 at Army, Crews had an overall mark of 354-348, which included four NCAA tournament appearances with Evansville. Army deputy athletic director Gene Marshall will serve as Army's interim coach, according to the Times Herald-Record report. Marshall played basketball at Northeastern and spent six years as the women's coach at Ramapo (N.J.) College.

BYU coach Dave Rose's recovery from cancer continues to go well. Rose had an MRI last week that confirmed he was cancer-free; he had a tumor removed from his pancreas and spleen last week. He will undergo another span six months from now. "The doctors are extremely confident that they are right on top of the situation," Rose said Monday. "They removed all of the disease, and it has not returned, nor does it show any signs of returning right now." Rose is back at work and plans to coach the Cougars this season as they seek their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith and Georgetown coach John Thompson III represented Coaches vs. Cancer in pushing for health care reform Monday at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the American Cancer Society Action Network. "My whole message was that we just need to do the right thing so that people who have cancer can get treatment and care," said DeChellis, a bladder cancer survivor. "It's not a Republican or Democratic thing. It's just humane. It's an American issue and a moral issue, and we as Americans can come together and fix it."

Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor could miss much of the preseason after dislocating his thumb in a Tuesday skirmish involving members of the Jayhawks' football and basketball teams. Kansas coach Bill Self told FoxSports.com he likely would keep Taylor out of Kansas' Oct. 16 Midnight Madness event as a precautionary measure. Self indicated Taylor would miss three to four weeks, though The Associated Press reported he could be out four to six weeks.

Former Wake Forest star forward Rodney Rogers returned to his alma mater Saturday and received a standing ovation before the Demon Deacons' football game with Elon. Rogers was on campus to "open the gate" to BB&T Field in a ceremonial honor similar to throwing out the first pitch before a baseball game. He was accompanied by former Wake coach Dave Odom. This was the first public appearance for Rogers, the 1993 ACC player of the year, at Wake Forest since a November 2008 dirt bike accident left him paralyzed.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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