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USC tries to rebound from 26-loss season

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USC tries to rebound from 26-loss season

LOS ANGELES (AP) Hit hard by injuries and a school-record 26 losses last season, the Southern California Trojans are eager to put the ugliness behind them and make a big turnaround led by point guard Jio Fontan.

The projected star of the program has mostly been off the court the last two seasons after transferring from Fordham. Fontan played just half a season in his USC debut, then missed all of last season after he tore his ACL during a summer exhibition tour in Brazil.

He wasn't the only player to go down. Forward Aaron Fuller, the team's second-leading scorer, hurt his left shoulder and center Dewayne Dedmon, the No. 3 scorer, tore his ACL, cutting their seasons short.

By season's end, the Trojans had just six scholarship players available. They finished 6-26 - 1-17 in the Pac-12 - after averaging 53 points and shooting 39 percent from the floor.

Now Fontan is healthy and looking forward to finally playing an entire season alongside a mix of transfers and newcomers under coach Kevin O'Neill.

``We're just flipping the page, starting a new chapter and trying to take advantage of this,'' Fontan said. ``We've got a lot of guys who only have one year left and we all have the same goal - win big.''

Fontan will anchor the backcourt with his ability to score and distribute. Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell could start at shooting guard. Sophomore Byron Wesley, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, is another likely starter.

Maurice Jones led the Trojans in scoring last season while playing 38 minutes a game in Fontan's absence. He was going to miss this year because of academic reasons and was expected to return in 2013-14, but abruptly transferred to Iowa State last week.

O'Neill has depth to replace him. Greg Allen started eight games last season, and freshman Brendyn Taylor brings an NBA pedigree. His father, Brian, played in the pros.

``Last year we didn't have that deep of a bench,'' Fuller said. ``Not like this year where we have a good rotation going on where we have guys that we can trust to get the job done.''

Fuller and the 7-foot Dedmon figure to start in the frontcourt. Dedmon didn't start playing organized basketball until he was a senior in high school. The junior's agility and quickness already led O'Neill to predict that he'll eventually make it to the pros.

``We're here to prove that we're better than a six-win team, so we're just going to come out with a lot of intensity,'' Dedmon said. ``It's definitely important to have Jio back as a leader on and off the court because he's a big-time player.''

Three other transfers could bolster the front line. Ari Stewart from Wake Forest, Renaldo Woolridge from Tennessee and Eric Wise from UC Irvine will be competing for playing time at forward.

``We have depth. We have experience. We have size,'' said O'Neill, entering his fourth year at USC. ``How quickly we jell and learn to play together remains to be seen. But we've got leadership in Jio. We have a lot of pieces, and now it's our job to put those pieces together.''

The Trojans' style of play will change to an aggressive tempo from the plodding, deliberate game O'Neill was forced to play the last couple of years because of the lack of size and depth.

``When you're this deep, you want to push the game,'' Fontan said. ``You want to make the tempo as fast and, at the same time, controlled as possible because we've got a lot of weapons and a lot of subs than we can make to get guys in, which won't lower the level of expectations on the coaches or our level of play.''

O'Neill has reason to feel more confident this year than he has at any time in his tenure. He arrived in the wake of an ongoing NCAA investigation and the departure of O.J. Mayo after one season. The following season he lost three starters and a handful of other players. Then came last season and the slew of injuries.

``Last year was very difficult because of our injuries and the fact that when I got here there was no freshmen or sophomores, so we had two blank recruiting classes,'' he said. ``The only way you can put it back together to get where we have the bodies we have now is with junior college guys, transfers and blend in a few freshmen. Now our goal is to get mostly freshmen going forward, which we're doing. We have four guys committed right now and we're hoping to get one more, and we're starting to build what I think is a really solid program.''

The Trojans open the season at home Nov. 9 against Coppin State. They host defending Big West champion Long Beach State before heading to the Maui Invitational and then return home to play defending Mountain West champion San Diego State.

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)

WHEN IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES?

Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.

WHAT TV CHANNEL IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES ON?

The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1?

Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.

CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1 OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.