Fully healed Trojans poised for rebound
By the end of last season, the USC men‚Äôs basketball team had been so ravaged by injuries that it barely resembled the team that had taken the court just months earlier.
With four of their five starters suffering season-ending injuries by the end of January, the Trojans posted the worst record (6-26, 1-17) in the program‚Äôs history, sending the team to last place in the Pac-12.
‚ÄúIt was a catastrophe,‚ÄĚ USC coach Kevin O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúIt was kind of like going to a knife fight with a spoon.‚ÄĚ
The Trojan freefall began when senior point guard Jio Fontan tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a summer exhibition game in Brazil, causing him to take a medical redshirt year.
Over the next six months, forwards Aaron Fuller and Evan Smith and center Dewayne Dedmon suffered season-ending injuries as well, leaving sophomore guard Maurice Jones as the leader of a squad that featured two walk-ons in a seven-man rotation.
‚ÄúOne by one, we just started falling,‚ÄĚ Dedmon said. ‚ÄúIt definitely took a toll on the team, as you could see with our record at the end of the year.‚ÄĚ
Jones has since transferred to Iowa State after being declared academically ineligible, but Fontan, Fuller and Dedmon are all back this season and are expected to form the backbone of a squad that features five transfers.
‚ÄúThose guys returning that were hurt are going to have to be a big part of the team,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúThey all feel like they got something to prove now.‚ÄĚ
Dedmon, a 7-foot junior who averaged 7.6 points and 5.5 rebounds last year, is a rising NBA prospect that‚Äôs expected to carry the team down low.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a potential pro, so we‚Äôre just going to go through him, feed him the ball inside,‚ÄĚ Fontan said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs starting to get more of a comfort zone on the offensive end.‚ÄĚ
Last January, Dedmon tore his medial collateral ligament after a Colorado player fell onto his knee, leaving the Trojans with only one player taller than 6-foot-6 on the active roster.
‚ÄúIt was [the] nail in the coffin,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúWe knew we couldn‚Äôt compete without him.‚ÄĚ
After rehabbing for several months, Dedmon was cleared for all basketball activities over the summer.
‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt have to have surgery, so that was a blessing,‚ÄĚ Dedmon said. ‚ÄúI just had to wait until the swelling went down so I could start working on my flexibility.‚ÄĚ
Fuller, a redshirt senior who averaged 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds last year, wasn‚Äôt as fortunate.
After injuring both of his shoulders last summer, Fuller played through the pain for a few months before aggravating his left shoulder against UCLA on Jan. 15. Surgery and six months of daily physical therapy followed.
‚ÄúI was working out a bunch of small muscles that I didn‚Äôt even really know I had,‚ÄĚ Fuller said.¬† ‚ÄúI just really wanted to get it healed and get ready for this year.‚ÄĚ
According to Fontan, Fuller is back in full force.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs still banging and aggressive as usual,‚ÄĚ Fontan said. ‚ÄúHis aggressive nature helps us out, kind of lifts the intensity up of the whole team.‚ÄĚ
Fontan himself, however, has taken a bit longer to fully recover from his torn ACL ‚ÄĒ he‚Äôs still held out of a few drills for precautionary reasons, but isn‚Äôt anticipated to be limited in the season opener on Friday against Coppin State.
O‚ÄôNeill still expects Fontan to lead the Trojans‚Äô resurgence after the team crumbled without him last year.
‚ÄúLast year in Brazil when he got hurt, we knew our season was doomed,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just really looking forward to him having a big year. I think it‚Äôs going to be one of those years where he just breaks out and has a great go of it.‚ÄĚ
O‚ÄôNeill hasn‚Äôt finalized USC‚Äôs starting lineup outside of Fontan and Dedmon. But he‚Äôs confident that if the injury bug bites again this year, the Trojans are better equipped to swat it away.
‚ÄúWe might have the best depth in the country,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôNeill said. ‚ÄúWe have more size, more veterans… It‚Äôs a completely different team. We have a lot of work to do and we got a long way to go, but we have a good starting point.‚ÄĚ
And there‚Äôs at least one Trojan who‚Äôs motivated by the memories of the worst year in program history.
‚ÄúThe season we had last year, you don‚Äôt want to go back and have a season like that again,‚ÄĚ Dedmon said. ‚ÄúWe got to come out and show everybody that it‚Äôs a different USC team out here.‚ÄĚ