An aggressive drive to the basket by senior guard Jio Fontan during an exhibition game in a crowded Brazilian gym was all it took to shift the guard position from a strength to an inexperienced liability for the USC men’s basketball team this season.
Fontan suffered an ACL tear that could sideline him the entire 2011-2012 season, forcing the Trojans to scramble to replace Fontan — their captain, as well as their leading returner in points and assists.
“We are running a totally different offense than we did going into Brazil with Fontan,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “We retooled everything offensively once we knew he was not coming back.”
Sophomore guard Maurice Jones will fill in as captain and start at point guard after playing shooting guard alongside Fontan for much of last season.
“I can score from the point,” Jones said. “It is easier to score off the ball, but I like having the ball in my hands. [O’Neill] told me to be more aggressive, but to still keep that point guard mentality in mind.”
Last season, Jones proved he could score at the collegiate level — albeit inconsistently. In his first three games, he averaged 18.3 points per game, including a 29-point outburst against Santa Clara in just his second college game. In contrast, in his fifth career game, Jones did not make a single field goal against Bradley despite 10 attempts.
“I was finding my way as a freshman,” Jones said.
He finished the season averaging 9.9 points, 3.2 assists and two steals per game.
“[Jones] has played much better [in practices],” O’Neill said. “He has matured a lot and is a lot better of a player.”
Besides Jones, the Trojans only have three available guards on scholarship, and none have competed at the Division I level.
Alexis Moore, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Long Beach Poly, played point guard in high school. With Jones expected to play close to 40 minutes a game at point guard, however, Moore will compete for time as a shooting guard.
“My instinct is to pass first, but I am willing to help the team in any way that I can,” Moore said. “If [O’Neill] said to play center, I would try my best to play center.”
The Trojans will count on Byron Wesley, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Etiwanda, Calif., to provide scoring from the guard position, as well. He averaged 19.2 points per game as a senior in high school.
“[Wesley] is a really good shooter,” Jones said. “He can also drive the ball to get to the basket and make plays for us.”
Wesley could also be tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player after Marcus Simmons, the reigning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, graduated last May.
“[Simmons’ defensive] role is a big role to fill,” Wesley said. “My best attribute is defense. I just want to go out there and shut the other team’s best player down.”
Greg Allen, a 6-foot-3 junior who transferred from Navarro College, was brought in to replace the outside shooting of graduated guard Donte Smith, who converted 35 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. Allen shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc last season.
Despite being sidelined, Fontan contributes to the team by mentoring the three new guards and teaching them the plays.
Moore credits Fontan for aiding in his development.
“If I do not [understand] something on the floor, I go to [Fontan] before anyone else,” Moore said.
Given the lack of experienced guard depth behind Jones, O’Neill does not believe the team could survive a major injury to its captain.
“If we do not have [Jones], it will be difficult for us to be competitive in major college games,” O’Neill said. “Do not come to the games, it would be ugly.”