In Fontan, Trojans have true leader


Before Saturday’s game against Arizona State, USC’s men’s basketball team will honor its five seniors before their final home game of their Trojan careers. Five names will be called, but the day will really belong to one player in particular.

Senior point guard Jio Fontan knows plenty about the highs and lows of Division I basketball. He’s seen it all in his five seasons of playing and, as he prepares for one last home game, he can’t help but take a brief look down memory lane.

“Probably beating UCLA my junior year,” Fontan said of his fondest Galen Center memory. “Beating UCLA at home, just having the crowd packed and getting that big win that led us to the tournament was awesome.”

The tournament that Fontan references, the NCAA tournament, is all but an afterthought as the 2013 season comes to a close. The “Second Chance Kids” never quite jelled this year, but the on-court results are leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s product.

It’s old news by now: the    2011-12 team, without its captain Fontan, sputtered through a mostly lifeless 6-26 season while its leader recovered from a torn ACL. That was the low point, and Fontan admitted that there were times when it seemed like he would never don a USC jersey again.

“[Leaving] was definitely a thought,” Fontan said. “But once I had the idea that [former head coach Kevin O’Neill] would come back, I definitely wanted to come back. Also, in talking with [former guard Maurice Jones], I wanted to come back and play with those two. Unfortunately, neither one is here now, but that was the plan.”

Jones left the program in September after being ruled academically ineligible, and O’Neill was fired on Jan. 14. Just like that, two of Fontan’s closest relationships were gone, but like he has before, the floor general pressed on and has the team near the top-half of the conference standings — a spot that was unfathomable only a year ago.

Given all he has withstood in the past, was there ever really any doubt?

Fontan started taking classes at USC in January 2010 after transferring from Fordham. Just one week prior to his arrival, USC announced self-imposed sanctions on its basketball program that barred it from postseason play for the 2010 season and limited scholarships. USC sputtered to the finish line that year, dropping its last six games, and had little to no momentum heading into the 2010-11 season.

But, Fontan provided just the spark that the team needed. After sitting out because of transfer rules while the team marched out to a mediocre 6-4 start, Fontan made his much-anticipated USC debut on Dec. 18, 2010, against then-No. 3 Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., where the Jayhawks had not lost in more than three years.

On this day, the Paterson, N.J., native did not disappoint, scoring 15 points in a tough     70-68 loss in which USC led with fewer than two minutes to play.

But the fire was lit, and the Trojans would finish the season 19-15, with upset wins over No. 18 Tennessee and No. 10 Arizona, en route to a berth in the NCAA tournament. Throughout the entire run, O’Neill continued to heap praise on his new star, labeling him the best guard in the country. When asked if he was affected by having such high expectations placed on him before he ever put on a jersey, Fontan merely scoffed.

“I felt the same way,” Fontan said of O’Neill’s praise. “I still feel the same way. I’ve had a lot of unfortunate situations, sure, but nonetheless, I’ve felt like every year I’ve played, including this year, I was the best point guard in the country.”

When all is said and done, Fontan’s name won’t be found at the top of any school or conference record books. By most measures, it would be hard to argue that he is indeed the best point guard in the country. His 12.1 career scoring average and 37.3 percent career shooting total would seem to mightily hurt his case.

To dismiss his statements outright is beyond the point. When Fontan says he is the best point guard in college basketball, you get the strong sense that he truly believes it. It is largely because of his high level of confidence that he has become the unquestionable face of the USC basketball program, despite his many bouts with adversity.

For the past few years, Trojan fans everywhere have celebrated their quarterback for leading the football program from the fallout of NCAA sanctions back to relevancy. In three years, Fontan has done that not once, but twice, first in 2011 in the wake of sanctions and then this year in the aftermath of the worst season in school history.

Yes, Matt Barkley has the numbers and star power that warrant such attention, but we praise him just as much for his leadership qualities and class. Fontan possesses these same attributes and, despite the many low points the team has had during his time in Los Angeles, the USC basketball program could not have asked for a better leader than the one it has had the past three years.

For his part, Fontan remains focused on the task at hand: earning just one more victory in front of his home fans. But, when asked what his USC legacy might be, he couldn’t hide his familiar grin.

“I just want the community as a whole to remember that I gave it all I had,” Fontan said. “I really felt the Trojan spirit and cared about the university. At the end of the day, I want them to remember that I gave it everything I had, night in and night out, and just tried to keep a smile on my face while doing it.”

For at least one USC fan, this will most certainly be the case.

 

“Inside the 20s” runs on Thursdays.  To comment on this story, email Nick at nselbe@usc.edu or visit dailytrojan.com.

 
  • Mike

    Great article, Nick. Always a pleasure reading your column. Fight on!