USC moves on without leading scorer

For a team that suffered 26 losses in 2011-12, last Saturday brought some unsettling news for the USC men’s basketball team before the start of the season: Junior guard Maurice Jones has been ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season.

The impact of losing Jones is clear. The guard played more minutes than almost every player in the country last season.

Sidelined · Junior point guard Maurice Jones was officially ruled academically ineligible last Saturday. In 2011-12, USC relied heavily on Jones to run a shaky offense depleted by injuries. – Mannat Saini | Daily Trojan

On a struggling team that was forced to give playing time to multiple walk-ons because of injuries, Jones was one of the lone sources of dependability for the Trojans. He appeared in all 32 games, logging a full 40 minutes of action 11 times. He also led the team in scoring (13 points per game), assists (3.5 per game), steals (1.8 per game) and 3-point percentage (.302).

Jones’ ineligibility is a blow to USC’s rebuilding efforts, and without any major additions to the roster it would likely struggle to surpass last season’s win total without its best scorer. But coach Kevin O’Neill wants to move forward and is pointing to USC’s newfound talent at the guard positions as a reason for optimism.

“We have Jio Fontan returning; [he’s] our captain and is going to have a great year,” O’Neill said. “We have J.T. Terrell, who is going to be really good for us as a junior.”

The Trojans also added two freshman guards,  Brendyn Taylor and Chass Bryan, both of whom could compete for playing time in a crowded backcourt.

“We’re going to miss [Jones],” O’Neill said. “We’d be better with him, but I’m confident we have some guys who can do the job.”

The Trojans as a whole enter the season with a significant amount of depth compared to last year’s squad, something O’Neill is hoping will be enough to thrive even without the 5-foot-7 guard.

“We’re deep at all positions,” O’Neill said. “We weren’t deep at any positions last year; obviously, after all the injuries … we’ve got Byron Wesley returning on the perimeter, who played 35 minutes a game last year. Ari Stewart is a proven guy, Renaldo Woolridge is proven. Those guys have all played major minutes at places.”

Assuming Jones is able to get his grades in order, the Trojans still plan to retain him for the 2013-14 season and beyond.

“He’ll have two years [of eligibility] left,” O’Neill said. “What we’re looking forward to is getting [Jones] back next year after Jio [Fontan] has graduated, and stepping right into the role of being the lead guard on our team.”

In the meantime, Terrell in particular could serve as a replacement of sorts for Jones as a swingman who can be utilized at both guard positions. As a freshman at Wake Forest, Terrell averaged 11.1 points per game. He played at Peninsula College in 2012 and was the No. 1 rated junior college player in the country, according to Swanny’s Roundball Review.

“He’s really talented,” O’Neill said. “J.T. [Terrell]’s challenge is going to be to play at the highest level and intensity at all times. And when he does that, he’ll be as good as any player there is.”

Terrell and the rest of the team will have to step up on both ends of the court to fill the void left by Jones, but O’Neill is confident that his roster can do so. He’s looking ahead to overcoming the hurdles the Trojans will face without Jones and hopes to have him back soon.

“It’s a challenge that nobody wants to have to deal with, but basketball is about challenges,” O’Neill said. “Life is about challenges, and we’re looking forward to having [Jones] back for his final two years of eligibility.”