In between drills during Thursday’s morning practice at the Galen Center, senior guard Jio Fontan picked up a loose ball and slowly made his way down the length of the floor.
On his way to the basket, Fontan slowly mimicked movements that seemed all too real just a few months ago.
But just as USC’s supposed star attraction went up to punctuate his coast-to-coast journey, something was simply missing.
He couldn’t get off the ground.
The mirage of what could have been for the Trojans this season is apparent every time Fontan — who tore his ACL during a July trip to Brazil — picks up a basketball.
For a team that bares little to no resemblance to the squad that nearly cracked the field of 64 in March, Fontan represented the promise of a new day. He was supposed to be the glue that would hold together last year’s late-season success with a group that’s about as diverse as any in Division I basketball.
USC has been without Fontan throughout all of training camp, and it won’t have him for Saturday’s scrimmage against Long Beach State, or next Friday’s season opener against Cal State Northridge at the Galen Center. And it likely won’t have him for most of the season.
In his absence, we know this about USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s inexperienced band of freshmen, transfers, misfits and unproven talents: They will do so having more holes than people to fill them.
Sophomore guard Maurice Jones instantly becomes the team’s do-it-all scorer at the offensive end. Only one problem: He’s a pass-first point guard who averaged fewer than 10 points per game his freshman season. At 5-foot-7, 155 pounds, Jones’ fearlessness at the basket is laudable, but his perimeter game still doesn’t scream crunch-time performer. When the game gets tight, is this really the guy you want taking the final shot?
I don’ think so — at least not yet.
Freshmen guards Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley infuse athleticism and unselfishness into an offensive system that was sorely lacking at times last season. But the two are just months removed from their high school proms, so expecting them to instantly develop college-level basketball IQs overnight is naive to say the least.
Apparently, 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game at Antelope Junior College can also create quite the buzz.
That’s what Trojans’ big man sophomore Dewayne Dedmon has brought to the table entering this year. The defensive-minded center might be a force to be reckoned with on the boards and in the shot blocking department, but his offensive game leaves much to be desired. Combine that with a fracture on his shooting hand, and USC’s primary post scorer suddenly doesn’t seem so intimidating.
Junior transfer forward Aaron Fuller from Iowa brings many intangibles to the table at the power forward position. From offensive put backs to defensive intensity, he is an O’Neill guy through and through. Against the Cal Poly and Morgan States of the world, his 6-foot-6 frame might not be an issue, but against some of the tougher interior teams in the Pac-12, like Oregon, UCLA and Washington, matchup issues are bound to ensue.
From top to bottom, I will admit there is a lot to like about this team despite my apparent sense of cynicism. Sophomore forward Garrett Jackson has beefed up and appears to have developed some maturity out on the court during the off-season after supposedly being involved in an altercation with former USC guard Bryce Jones.
JUCO transfer junior guard Greg Allen will definitely provide a spark off the bench from the 3-point line á la Donte Smith. And junior James Blasczyk, a transfer from Lee College, provides USC with welcomed depth and raw aggression in the post.
But there’s something to be said about having to replace four of your top six players from a year ago, especially when one of them, Nikola Vucevic, was recently selected 16th overall in the NBA draft.
O’Neill has faced more than his fair share of challenges in a coaching career that spans more than three decades. From replacing Lute Olsen at Arizona to working with a poorly assembled roster in 2003 with the Toronto Raptors to motivating a USC team with no postseason to play for because of sanctions, the colorful coach as been there and done that.
But something tells me this set of circumstances was never in the job descriptions O’Neill never really desired.
You can put lipstick on a pig, as O’Neill has done in recent weeks, but sadly sometimes it still remains a pig.
Though you can bank on this team playing hard every night from November to March, at the end of the day will that really be enough?
“I know one thing, regardless of how things play out, it’s going to be a roller coaster this year,” O’Neill said on Thursday.
The question remains: How long will the coaches, the players and the fans stay along for the ride?
“For The Love Of The Game” runs every other Friday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Dave at email@example.com.