Maurice Jones is weary.
He’s weary after watching the USC men’s basketball team lose a school-record 23 times this season.
He’s weary after playing more than 1,000 minutes — a rate of 34.1 per game, seventh-highest in the country.
He’s weary after scoring more than a quarter of the Trojans’ total points.
“It’s a big difference from last year and I played a lot last year,” the sophomore guard said. “There have been games where I find myself a little more tired. Just running up and down, I kind of feel it in my legs and it takes a little more time to catch my breath.”
USC coach Kevin O’Neill never anticipated that the 5-foot-7 Jones would be forced to have such a significant role — not at this stage in his career, at least.
O’Neill recruited Jones, a native of Saginaw, Mich., as part of a four-member class in 2010, reeling in other prospects such as Garrett Jackson, Bryce Jones and Curtis Washington.
But Jones, a guard from nearby Woodland Hills, Calif., transferred just two months into his freshman season, and Washington, a sophomore forward, hasn’t played a minute all year because of a shoulder injury sustained last August.
Factor in four more season-ending injuries to a handful of players, including three starters, and it’s easy to see why Jones has been given such a prominent role in recent months. A role, however, that hasn’t necessarily been all that easy.
“It’s a lot to ask of him as a sophomore — to get you 20 [points] a game every game when you have a young team and all these injuries,” O’Neill said.
More or less, Jones has been the elder statesman in the Trojans’ starting lineup. Currently, the unit also consists of two freshmen in guards Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley, coupled with Jackson, a sophomore forward, and junior center James Blasczyk who, despite his experience, is still in his first year with the program after transferring from Lee College in Baytown, Texas.
“We’re shorthanded right now,” said Jones, who hasn’t played less than 38 minutes in a game all season. “We just want everyone to get better.”
But getting better is slightly subjective, especially considering the Trojans have dropped 16 of their last 17 contests and remain in a seemingly never-ending tailspin.
And though Jones leads the team in scoring with 13.5 points per game, in his last four games he has struggled scoring-wise, making just 13 of 52 field goal attempts.
One explanation: He’s out of position, playing point guard as opposed to shooting guard — his natural position, according to O’Neill.
“He plays better off the ball,” O’Neill said. “His game suffered more than anybody’s when Jio [Fontan] went down. It’s just put him where he’s on the ball too much; too many minutes.”
Fontan, a senior, was slotted to start at point guard, as he did last season when the Trojans secured an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
But as has been well-documented, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament during an exhibition game in Brazil in August, causing a sort of ripple effect.
Jones, as a result, is the Trojans’ only returner who played any significant minutes for last season’s 19-win team.
At times, he’s looked more than comfortable. During a 63-60 win over South Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 26, he registered 28 points, one shy of his career high, and connected on all seven 3-point attempts to break USC’s single-game school record. Similarly, a month later, he finished with 25 points and four 3-pointers in a 24-point home rout against TCU.
Then, there are the times he struggles. Against UCLA earlier this month, he made 3-of-11 shot attempts for eight points. And during the month of February, he has averaged 10.29 points per game — a dip below his season average, as the Trojans were winless.
“It’s always frustrating because you want to win,” Jones said. “I want to do well. And I want to see everyone else do well. We just ]don’t have] the number of guys and the ability to do that.”
The hope is that Jones’ load will be a bit lighter next year. He won’t be forced to carry a team so young, so inexperienced. Returning will be backcourt teammates Fontan and Moore, in addition to highly regarded Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell. He likely won’t average more than 38 minutes per game again, either.
Looking toward 2013 might not make the current predicament any easier — the Trojans still have at least three games left this season — but simply hearing “next year” seems to be the closest thing to a glimmer of hope for now.
“It’s not going to be like this next year,” Jones insists. “I don’t plan on us having another season like this. Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”