Interim USC coach Bob Cantu picked up his first victory of the season Saturday night in a thrilling 69-68 victory over the Oregon State Beavers. The Trojans scored the go-ahead bucket with less than five seconds remaining and sealed the contest by blocking junior forward Devon Collier’s shot as time expired.
But the game should never have been so close. It’s far too early to judge Cantu on his performance, but the same can’t be said for this group of players. Recently dismissed USC coach Kevin O’Neill was the sacrificial lamb for a team that was hovering around mediocrity, and he certainly deserves blame for failing to deliver a winner. Ultimately, though, the Trojans — who nicknamed themselves the “second- chance kids” — have been a model of inconsistency all season long.
The biggest example of inconsistency stems from the backcourt. Senior point guard Jio Fontan has essentially been given a free pass from the coaching staff all season long, despite the fact that he’s shooting just 32.5 percent from the field. In USC’s win over Oregon State, Fontan finished with eight points (his season average is 8.4) and 10 turnovers. Coming back from an ACL injury, as Fontan is doing, is certainly never easy. I sympathize with his recovery and am glad he’s been able to return to the court. But his play just hasn’t been up to par compared to what was expected of him.
Junior guard J.T. Terrell is also struggling. He was benched earlier in the season for poor play, and, since his return to the starting lineup, has shot the ball slightly better. There isn’t a body of work that would point to him keeping that up, though. He’s still shooting a dismal 32.4 percent from the floor and just 32.7 percent on his 3-point attempts (same as Fontan). USC’s starting guards were supposed to be the team’s strength before the year started. Instead, Fontan and Terrell have been the poster boys for erratic performances. This team won’t pull off any Pac-12 upsets unless the duo starts shooting the ball at a higher clip, at least converting on closer to 40 percent of their attempts.
The rest of the roster isn’t absolved from blame either. Sophomore forward Byron Wesley has been turning in better stat lines of late but also had a string of five straight games with less than 10 points. Junior forward Dewayne Dedmon is playing less than 23 minutes per game, moving in and out of the lineup with junior center Omar Oraby. Junior forward Ari Stewart and senior forward Renaldo Woolridge, two transfers who were expected to contribute for the Trojans, are averaging less minutes per game than freshman walk-on guard Chass Bryan.
The one exception to what has otherwise been a roller-coaster ride on both sides of the court is senior forward Eric Wise.
The UC Irvine transfer, who was responsible for the game-winning block against the Beavers, leads the team in points per game (12.5), field goal percentage (51.7), and is second in rebounds (4.9) plus third in assists (1.5). He’s scored in double figures in all but three games and has emerged as USC’s most dependable player by far.
Wise still isn’t counted on to be the de facto No. 1 option when he’s on the court, but he ought to be. He has established himself as the lone go-to player on a team that struggles to find consistent output on a game-by-game basis.
Ultimately, there’s a difference between having a bevy of depth and not being able to find a dependable group of players who can log major minutes. This team’s identity entering the season built upon “us against the world” mentality. Most of the players didn’t have much experience playing with each other, but that was supposed to unite them collectively. Now we’re nearing February in the heart of conference play and the Trojans don’t look much closer to figuring things out. It’s possible this group just isn’t capable of developing a cohesive unit as currently constituted. But the talent is still there, and there’s precious little time remaining to right the ship.
It’s now or never for the “second-chance kids” to live up to their nickname, or this season will end with USC as an afterthought in the Pac-12.
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