Just days before the men’s basketball season opener, the team’s starting backcourt has finally been established.
USC coach Kevin O’Neill announced after Monday’s practice that junior J.T. Terrell would start at shooting guard in Friday’s season opener against Coppin State, making him the only confirmed starter alongside senior point guard Jio Fontan.
“J.T. has made some great strides over the last seven to nine days,” O’Neill said. “He’s finally starting to play hard. He knows the game, and he’s very intelligent — more intelligent than I thought he was.”
Terrell, who played at Wake Forest two years ago, was the top-ranked junior college player last season after transferring to Peninsula College in Washington, where he averaged 24.4 points per game.
“I’m glad to be a part of the starting five,” Terrell said. “[But] it’s not really that big of a deal. I just gotta get in and play my minutes hard, whenever they are.”
Terrell started practicing with the Trojans in June and immediately started to develop an on-court rapport with Fontan.
“Ever since we started practicing, me and Jio have always been on the same team so we can kind of get a feel for each other,” Terrell said. “As of right now, I think me and Jio know each other’s game pretty well. Obviously it’s going to get better as the season goes on, and the more we play together.”
The pair is expected to provide a jolt to the team’s offense, which scored just 52.6 points per game last year.
Fontan, the team’s captain, averaged 10.5 points and 3.9 assists per game during the 2010-11 season before missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“[Fontan] is just like your perfect point guard that you want to play with,” Terrell said. “He knows how to get everybody open, knows how to pick spots. He’s a pass-first guard even though he can score whenever need be.”
With Terrell starting, sophomore guard Byron Wesley will likely come off the bench after starting all 32 games and averaging 9.6 points for the Trojans last season.
However, with Wesley’s size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), it’s possible he may slide over to small forward, where he spent some time for an undersized USC squad last season, to give the Trojans a swifter pace on offense.
“This year, we have so many athletic players,” Wesley said. “We can get out and push the ball in transition and get some easy baskets.”
The Trojans possess depth in the backcourt with freshmen guards Brendyn Taylor and Chass Bryan — a luxury the team didn’t have last season, when it was down to six scholarship players midway through conference play.
“When one good player goes out, we’re gonna have one more go in,” Wesley said. “We have great overall athleticism and quickness.”
Taylor and Bryan have both impressed their older teammates with their work ethic.
“They’re trying to do whatever they can in order to help the team out, and they’re doing a good job of that,” senior guard Greg Allen said. “They’re not worried about their playing time, they’re worried about trying to contribute to the team. That’s what we need.”
Allen was second on the team last season in three-pointers with 29 and is expected to fill a similar role as a sharpshooter off the bench this year.
Walk-on redshirt juniors Tyler Sugiyama and Daniel Munoz round out the Trojans’ deep set of guards.
In his debut for Wake Forest two years ago, Terrell set a school record for points in a first game when he scored 26 in the season opener against Stetson.
Fontan thinks his new running mate in the backcourt could be poised to post more impressive stat lines for the Trojans.
“[Terrell] is a playmaker,” Fontan said. “J.T. is one of the best one-on-one players in America, to me.”
But if Terrell or any other starters don’t pan out, O’Neill won’t be afraid to make a change.
“Hopefully guys understand that if they aren’t playing, they gotta do what they gotta do to play,” O’Neill said. “And if they are playing, they gotta take care of their business or they won’t be playing.”
Terrell doesn’t anticipate lack of effort being a problem.
“Practice is always competitive, whether you know who’s starting or not,” Terrell said. “We just got that type of team, where every day we step on the court it’s always competitive.”
Whether the Trojans can stay competitive with other teams remains to be seen — but with Fontan and Terrell anchoring USC’s backcourt, their chances look better than they did a year ago.