On the basketball court, USC junior guard Jio Fontan is used to success.
At powerhouse St. Anthony High School (N.J.), the Paterson, N.J. native was a three-year letterman. As a sophomore, his team went 24-2 in the regular season before bowing out to eventual New Jersey state champion St. Patrick’s in the round of 16.
As a junior, the Friars went undefeated in the regular season before again falling again at the hands of St. Patrick’s, who would go on to defend their state title.
As a senior co-captain, he helped lead St. Anthony’s to another undefeated regular season, and the Friars finally avenged their losses to St. Patrick’s en-route to a 32-0 season and a state and national championship.
Five of his teammates received Division I scholarship offers to school like Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Kansas.
While not as heavily recruited, Fontan was still nationally-ranked as a point guard and considered schools such as St. John’s and George Mason, but eventually committed to play across the Hudson River at Fordham University in New York, attempting to turn around the once proud program.
Fontan found personal success immediately, leading Fordham in both scoring and assists as a freshman, and earning a spot on the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie team. But the Rams went just 3-25, and Fontan requested to be released from his scholarship. Following a 1-4 start in 2009, the school granted his release.
“I wanted to get out of Fordham,” Fontan said. “I was not happy with the situation there. I did not feel comfortable, and I did not like the direction that the program was headed in.”
It was a big risk for Fontan, who had no visits planned or transfer offers at the time of his release. He quickly found himself being recruited, however, by several major programs, including Tennessee, Miami and Alabama, but ultimately committed to the Trojans after watching them rout then-No. 9 Tennessee in December 2009.
Fontan enrolled at USC in spring 2010, but because of NCAA transfer rules was not eligible to play for a year following his transfer. Nonetheless, he reaped praise from teammates and coaches alike, especially for his court leadership.
“He’s going to lift our team up a couple more levels, just by his presence, his ability, his leadership,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill after Fontan’s transfer. “I’ve been coaching basketball for 30 years, and unless I’m completely out of my mind, he’s going to be the best leader I’ve ever coached.”
“The thing about Jio, everything he says, people listen,” said senior guard Marcus Simmons.
Since he first took the court as a Trojan, that leadership ability has clearly manifested itself.
His debut came against the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. where the Jayhawks had won 64 consecutive games. Although USC ended up losing by two points, Fontan started, played 35 minutes, scored 15 points and was an integral part of the Trojans’ 14-point comeback in the second half.
Three days later, he scored 13 points in 30 minutes as the Trojans knocked off then-No. 18 Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.
In just his third game as a Trojan, Fontan led the team in scoring with 21 points in a win over Lehigh. In fact, he has scored double digits and played at least 30 minutes in five of his six games as a Trojan, and USC, as a result, is 4-2 in that span.
“If we did not have Jio these last six games, we would be 2-4 or 1-5,” O’Neill said.
“He is a commander on the court,” said senior forward Alex Stepheson. “He is able to guide and help the other wing players, especially the younger guys.”
Despite the accliam, Fontan is not satisfied. “I am my biggest critic,” he said. “I don’t feel I’ve played a complete game yet.”
Fontan, however, not only sees room for improvement in himself, but in the team.
“We need to do a better job playing a complete game,” he said. “At times, we take too many plays off and fall asleep on defense or take bad shots on offense. We have not hit our peak yet, and that is a beautiful thing.”
But overall, Fontan is quite happy at USC, saying the “best part about USC is the weather,” and that he even texts his dad, Jorge, back in New Jersey to compare it.
In fact, Fontan likes it so much he says he wishes his family could relocate with him to Southern California.
On the basketball side, Fontan says he is “getting more and more comfortable adjusting,” and O’Neill certainly agrees.
“He’s our glue out there,” said the second-year coach. “He leads us.”
Before arriving at USC, Fontan said his vision was “to play major minutes right away and help this team as much as possible.”
Through six games starting in the Trojans’ backcourt, there remains little doubt he’s done that.