Tough hill to climb for Trojan basketball
They happened five months and more than 6,000 miles apart.
First, there was the late March press conference at the Galen Center in Los Angeles where first-team All-Pac-10 center Nikola Vucevic declared he was skipping his senior season at USC to enter the NBA draft.
Just last week, in a nondescript gymnasium outside Sao Paulo, star senior guard Jio Fontan landed awkwardly after being hit on a drive to the basket late in the first half of USCâs preseason game against a Brazilian professional team, tearing a ligament in his left knee and ending his season before it started.
USCâs 2011-2012 basketball season doesnât tip off until mid-November, yet its two defining moments have already taken place.
The Trojans record is still unblemished at 0-0, but it feels like theyâve already lost so much.
Now, letâs spare the doom and gloom and refrain from calling this a lost season for USC basketball.
It is still only August and the Trojans have some intriguing young talent.
USCâs group of freshmen and transfers could end up gelling very well together.
A return trip to the NCAA tournament isnât out of the question.
The season that will be, however, is overshadowed by what could have been.
With Vucevic and Fontan in the lineup alongside guard Maurice Jones, the Trojans would have returned their top three scorers from a season ago.
Instead, USC now only boasts two players on its roster that scored in a game for the Trojans last year â Jones and sophomore forward Garrett Jackson.
Newcomers Aaron Fuller and Dewayne Dedmon would have been expected to fill their roles solidly, not spectacularly.
Now, they will be counted on to shoulder a good portion of the offensive load.
The leftover effects of the O.J. Mayo scandal wonât help the team cope with the losses of Vucevic and Fontan, either.
âRight now, this third year, especially with Jio getting hurt, thatâs when you get hit with the remnant of these sanctions where we lost two recruiting classes,â USC coach Kevin OâNeill said. âWe have a bunch of inexperienced guys that have never played. Theyâre going to get a lot of experience early and hopefully they respond well and turn themselves into a really good postseason team.â
This could have been a banner season for recently rejuvenated USC basketball.
After making only six NCAA tournament appearances from 1962 to 2000, the Trojans have qualified six times in the last 11 seasons.
USCâs runs to the Elite Eight in 2001 and the Sweet 16 in 2007 marked the first time the program had made it past the second round of the Big Dance since 1954.
âOur only goal is to make the NCAA tournament and try to win the Pac-12 title,â OâNeill said. âThose are our goals and I donât think we should change those goals.â
Fontanâs injury was an especially cruel blow to the Trojans, with his teammates forced to watch their leader stretchered off the floor.
âIn my career, Iâve never felt worse for a player than I feel for him,â OâNeill said. âThe first two and a half games [of the Brazil trip], he was playing at a first-round-NBA-draft-pick level. I feel bad for him that way and bad for our team that he canât be there to lead us and do all the things that a guy of his caliber would do.â
Freshman Alexis Moore, from Long Beach Poly High, will be tasked with stepping into Fontanâs spot in the starting lineup.
âHeâs going to have to be a guy that doesnât play like a freshman,â OâNeill said. âAnd even then, itâs going to be very difficult for a guy his age to step into his role that requires a ton of leadership, especially for what is a very young and inexperienced team now.â
The schedule will do the Trojans no favors, either.
With non-conference games against Kansas, San Diego State and Georgia, a potential tournament date with North Carolina in Las Vegas and a challenging Pac-12 slate, USCâs young players will be tested early and often.
This season, however, will not make or break USC basketball.
The gains the Trojans have made over the last decade have been substantial. The program weathered the storm of NCAA sanctions while enjoying its greatest run of success in recent history.
The future remains bright for the Trojans â a talented and youthful roster, an experienced head coach and a recruiting foothold in the Southern California basketball market are all long-term assets.
The short term gains of the 2011-2012 year, however, donât look nearly as promising as how they were projected six months ago.
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