The headliner of last season’s USC men’s basketball team was former forward Nikola Vucevic — the 16th overall draft pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Vucevic was a first team All-Pac-10 selection and his 19.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in conference play placed him second and first, respectively, in the Pac-10.
It goes without saying: USC will be challenged to replace the Montenegro native.
Losing its top scorer is, no doubt, a blow to an offense that was anemic at times last season, finishing ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring offense at 65.3 points per game.
To its credit, however, USC’s low scoring totals were a byproduct of its game plan, as the team regularly rotated only about seven players through its lineup, hoping to slow down the pace of games, so as to not exhaust its players.
With the potential for more depth this season, especially at the forward position, the Trojans might be able to play a more up-tempo game.
“We’re a lot faster than last year as a group,” sophomore forward Garrett Jackson said. “[Former center Alex Stepheson] and [Vucevic] were both great players, but they’re more bangers inside. We have big guys this year who run the floor really well, so we’ll be able to move the ball a lot more and trap a lot more on defense and be more aggressive.”
Jackson is one of only two returning players who registered a field goal last season, with sophomore guard Maurice Jones as the other.
Though he averaged only 12.5 minutes per game in Pac-10 play last season, Jackson flashed a smooth perimeter shot in his sporadic playing time, shooting 56 percent from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc.
“When [senior guard Jio Fontan] was healthy, I thought of myself as more of a spot-up guy because he and [Jones] are such great drivers,” Jackson said. But now I’m going to have to be more versatile and play multiple positions, whereas if he was still here, I’d be strictly a [small forward].”
A key player who will be teaming up with Jackson in the front court this season is junior forward Aaron Fuller. After sitting out a season following his transfer from Iowa, the left-hander will be expected to contribute scoring from the mid-range area, as well as a tough interior paint presence.
During the 2009-2010 season, Fuller was named All-Big Ten honorable mention, averaging 9.7 points and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds in 30 games.
“I want to try to get a lot of rebounds and try to execute on offense, give the offense some scoring,” Fuller said. “I’m going to be aggressive and crash the boards hard, which we’re all trying to do, and make plays when they’re there.”
In addition to replacing Vucevic, USC must find a way to compensate for the graduation of forward Marcus Simmons — the 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Despite his offensive limitations, Simmons was often called upon to guard the opposing team’s best scorer, helping USC finish first in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, surrendering only 63.3 points per game.
During a Feb. 24 game against then-No. 10 Arizona at Galen Center, a 65-57 upset win for the Trojans, Simmons, by in large, kept future No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Derrick Williams off the scoreboard. When guarding Williams, Simmons held the forward, who was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves, to just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” Fuller said. “We all have to pick up the slack. We have the guys to do that if we focus and play hard. We have some people who are going to be hard to match up against.”
Before the season, sophomore forwards Curtis Washington and Evan Smith were expected to contribute to this team effort. Unfortunately, Washington tore his left labrum during USC’s practice for the Brazilian exhibition tour and will miss the season as a result.
Smith, after sitting out last season because of a left shoulder injury, was hopeful he could see his role increase in 2011-2012 as a scoring option off the bench. But a re-aggravation of the same shoulder injury means he will be out an additional 5-7 weeks.
USC, as a result, might opt to use “big” and “small” lineups.
If it wanted to field a bigger team, it could insert junior James Blasczyk at center along with sophomore Dewayne Dedmon at either power or small forward.
Conversely, USC could utilize a small starting five by playing any of a number of guards such as freshman Byron Wesley at the small forward position.
Regardless of the players on the court, it is clear that Jackson, as the one USC forward holdover, among others, will be counted on to lead the forward unit.
“I’m going to have to [be more of a leader],” Jackson said. “I’m going to have to cut down on mistakes. [Jones] and I are going to have to step up in that leadership role and be more vocal.”