When USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill was questioned about the possibility of losing guard Maurice Jones to injury or other circumstances prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season, he took on a near-apocalyptic tone.
“Don’t come to the games,” O’Neill said at Pac-12 Media Day in 2011. “It’ll be ugly. Don’t show up. If we don’t have this guy, it’ll be very difficult for us to be competitive in major college games.”
As it turns out, the games were ugly and rarely competitive even with Jones on the court. The Trojans were historically bad, sporting a 6-26 record. But now, months removed from the worst regular season in school history, and despite the loss of Jones because of academic issues, O’Neill is singing a decidedly more positive tune.
“We’re going to miss [Mo],” O’Neill told the Daily Trojan last week. “We’d be better with him, but I’m confident we have some guys who can do the job.”
O’Neill is referring to an influx of new talent — six additions in all — plus the healthy returns of senior point guard Jio Fontan, junior center Dewayne Dedmon and senior forward Aaron Fuller. Is the head coach spewing feel-good quotes to keep his team’s psyche afloat before the start of the season? Or, does he really believe they can weather the storm without Jones? I’d lean toward the latter.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden exerted patience with the head coach because no one could have turned a squad ravaged by so many injuries into anything near decent.
Even still, O’Neill knows a run in the NCAA tournament will be necessary to keep his job beyond this season. Framing the loss of Jones as catastrophic (even if it’s not true) would be a fair ulterior motive for anyone who wants to stick around as head coach.
O’Neill has been in this business a long time, he knows how to play the public relations game. Instead, he’s taking on a message of positivity — losing Jones hurts, but this team is good enough to compete anyway. He believes they can win this season.
The reason for his renewed faith? This group of players far surpasses the talent level of last year’s squad.
USC took a chance on a bunch of transfers—two from Wake Forest (junior guard J.T. Terrell and junior forward Ari Stewart), plus senior forward Eric Wise from UC Irvine and senior forward Renaldo Woolridge from Tennessee.
The return of Fontain and Fuller along with a more polished Dedmon also helps, and underclassmen like sophomore forward Byron Wesley benefited from plenty of minutes on a team with zero depth.
In fact, there’s a good chance Jones, who ranked sixth in the nation in minutes per game last season, wouldn’t even start on this Trojans team. Fontan figures to play point guard and serve as the team captain, and Terrell is a high-scoring two guard who averaged 24 minutes per game as a freshman at Wake Forest.
As a sixth man, Jones would certainly been valuable. But the combination of two freshman guards along with sharpshooter Allen should be enough to supplant USC’s arguably two best players whenever they need a breather.
In truth, Jones’ impact on last year’s squad may have been a bit overstated. He led the team in most major statistical categories (including points, assists and steals), but was the only Division I-worthy guard able to log major minutes and take on ball-handling duties.
He finished a dismal 34 percent from the field, including 30 percent from three point range — which, to be fair, was surely the result of having to take an inordinate amount of shots when others could not. This is neither a condemnation nor an excuse for his performance — rather, a reflection of what Jones can contribute.
On a really awful team, he can serve as a confident playmaker who isn’t going to single-handily pull out very many victories. On a good team like this year’s Trojans might be, he’s somewhere in between a fringe starter and a very valuable role player.
And for that reason, USC should be able to compete for an NCAA tournament bid with or without him in 2012-2013.
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