Amid an ongoing NCAA investigation, player departures to the NBA and academic eligibility issues, the USC men’s basketball program appears to be in transition.For first-year coach Kevin O’Neill, the task of turning a program marred by recent controversy into an upper-echelon competitor in the Pac-10 may be an extremely tough challenge. But for a team looking for an identity and a leader to guide it toward a successful campaign, the one person the Trojans may rely on most is the one member of their team who has yet to suit up for a game: redshirt junior forward Alex Stepheson.Back at home · After spending his first season with North Carolina, Alex Stepheson joined the Trojans last season. The former Harvard-Westlake star is ready for his chance to play in front of his hometown crowd. – Courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications Stepheson, a former standout at nearby Harvard-Westlake High School, transferred from the University of North Carolina before the beginning of last season and was hoping to be a key contributor for USC last year. Just days into the season, however, the NCAA rejected his appeal to be granted immediate eligibility, and, for the first time in his basketball career, Stepheson was forced to watch from the sidelines.“Everyone was having fun together and winning as a team, and to not be part of that was a difficult experience,” Stepheson said.As USC staged its miraculous run to the NCAA Tournament last March, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward who had been a part of the Tar Heels Final Four team the previous year was left to play the role of cheerleader.For a player who had been lauded out of high school for his work ethic and love of the game, Stepheson did not waste his yearlong break from competition and instead spent the time improving.Stepheson, known primarily as a “defensive-minded” player, spent the majority of the last season working on another dimension of his game: his offense.“The year off gave me time to work on my post-up moves, 15-foot jump shots and free-throw shooting,” he said.And while the local high school product admits the defensive-minded label at times can be bothersome, he is excited for this year and the chance to prove to scouts and fans alike that he is a complete player.On paper, the program may have a tough road ahead, but Stepheson is confident that the Trojans will surprise a lot of people around the country this season.“This year is an exciting chance for us as a team,” Stepheson said. “It is an opportunity to prove to a lot of people we have what it takes to be successful.”Going into this year, the Trojans will not resemble the ’08-’09 team which captured the Pac-10 Tournament Championship for the first time in the program’s history. Star center Taj Gibson and freshman phenom DeMar DeRozan left school early with dreams of the NBA. Both were taken within the first 26 picks of the 2009 NBA Draft. Starting point guard Daniel Hackett went back to his home country of Italy to play for Benetton Treviso of the Euroleague. And, in the bombshell of the summer, Tim Floyd — the only coach to lead the Trojans to three straight tournament appearances — signed his letter of resignation, leaving the program in shambles and an inexperienced team to pick up the pieces.The team will be hard-pressed to repeat the level of achievement that has been regular the past few seasons, but Stepheson believes that O’Neill is more than an admirable replacement for the departed Floyd.For the pessimists around campus and the college basketball community at large, Stepheson has an exciting message.“You will see us run more, get out in more fast breaks and hopefully score more points,” he said.While he has been praised as a tenacious defender who has the ability to change games with his shot-blocking abilities and strength on the boards, Stepheson’s greatest asset to the team might be his ability to lead. After the departure of Gibson, a former Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and team co-captain, Stepheson realizes that this year the team will depend on his vocal presence as much as his on-court contribution.“I will do what it takes for us to win this year,” he said. “The team will definitely miss Taj’s passion for the game and constant hustle, but I hope to come in and instill a winning mentality and sense of toughness that is necessary to win at this level night in and night out.”The new post presence for the Trojans is well aware of the line of successful big men to play at USC, from Sam Clancy to Brian Scalabrine to Gibson. But for an athlete who was told he couldn’t even compete last year, Stepheson isn’t too concerned about what his legacy will be when his days at USC conclude.“It would be nice to be considered with the good post players who have come through this program, but this year is about working hard and making the most of the opportunity,” he said.So as the team gears up for its home opener against UC Riverside Nov. 17, the big man who left a powerhouse program in search of a chance to play in front of his hometown fans will relish his homecoming, even if it is more than a year in the making.On the surface the program may look like it’s on the rebound, left to carry the burden of past mistakes and key departures, but look closer and you will find a budding star and a leader ready to carry the torch.Alex Stepheson may not be a name you identify with yet. But if USC is able to make it to an historic fourth straight NCAA Tournament and rise above the negativity and cynicism that surrounds the team heading into this season, he will surely be a key reason.