CBS Sports rolled out a college basketball preview Monday, featuring predictions for All-American finalists and Final Four contenders, along with a list of the top 100 players in the country.
The Pac-12, despite being uncharacteristically weak last season, has a fair number of athletes who could end the season with some serious accolades. UCLA alone produced three players in the top 100, including No. 3 Shabazz Muhammad — that is, of course, dependent on whether or not the NCAA clears him to play. In total, the conference had nine players in the rankings. And the last of those nine, No. 98 J.T. Terrell, is set to suit up for the Trojans this season.
Normally, a Trojan making headlines for his skills on the court wouldn’t be noteworthy in the slightest. USC might not have achieved much success holistically in its men’s basketball history, but individually there’s been plenty of NBA talent. In the last 15 years, the school has sent out guys like Brian Scalabrine, Nick Young, O.J. Mayo and Nikola Vucevic.
But Terrell is an interesting case for two reasons. One, USC had its worst-ever season in terms of win-loss percentage in 2011-12. Again, poor seasons are not out of the norm for the men’s team. But last year was truly a train wreck, which has managed to derail expectations for this roster to monumentally low levels among casual hoops fans.
And second of all, and perhaps most importantly, Terrell is a transfer student who most recently played at the junior college level and very few onlookers know what to expect from the virtually unknown guard, who began his college career at Wake Forest.
With the season set to kick off Nov. 9, the assumption has long been that senior guard Jio Fontan would serve as the de facto leader of the squad. But Terrell’s national recognition from college basketball analysts begs the question — should he instead be considered USC’s top option?
In terms of who will serve as the leader of the team, Terrell has little say in the matter. The oldest, most tenured players are going to command the most respect in that regard, and Fontan is the senior starting point guard returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Tennessee transfer Renaldo Woolridge is a senior, as is backup center James Blasczyk, forward Aaron Fuller, guard Greg Allen and UC Irvine transfer Eric Wise. It’s safe to say Terrell has a while to go before he’s in the running for team captain.
But on a squad chock-full of depth (yes, this year’s roster is nothing like last year’s), someone is going to have to score points during crunch time if USC wants to make plays at the end of close games. And Terrell has the raw talent and work ethic to be that guy.
Terrell is actually helped by the dismissal of likely sixth man Maurice Jones, because he’s now by far the best swingman left on the roster that can handle the ball and score the basketball. As a freshman at Wake Forest, Terrell averaged 11.1 points, including a season-high 32 points against Iowa. He has a silky-smooth step-back jumper and athleticism that should lead to a higher number of highlight reel plays for the Trojans, especially compared to the 2011-12 season.
Both his shooting and jumping abilities were in full display following his senior season of high school, when he won the North Carolina/South Carolina All-Star Dunk Contest and 3-Point Contest. He’s likely to log major minutes, and is expected to put up numbers in the mid to high teens every game.
A quick YouTube search of Terrell’s highlights only confirms what the CBS Sports pundits already know — this guy has a chance to be one of the best players in the Pac-12. And by the end of the season, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t seen that way.
Fontan is penciled in as the emotional leader and one of the team’s two or three best players after averaging 10.5 points and 3.9 assists as a junior. Impressive, yes, but to expect him to take over the offensive load seems like a bit of a stretch.
Starting center Dewayne Dedmon, meanwhile, might have the most pro potential — he’s listed as a second round pick on NBADraft.net — but he’s still too raw on both sides of the court to really be trusted down the stretch. And guys like Woolridge, Fuller and sophomore Byron Wesley will certainly play important roles and “have their shining moments,” but none have shown the capability to be big time threats. Wesley might reach that point in 2014, but he isn’t there yet.
So, by season’s end, USC’s most valuable player will be Terrell. The Trojans can compete against some of their opponents sans the junior guard, but they would really struggle to contend in the Pac-12 standings without him. He’s a major catalyst for the team’s offense and holds the key to its chances at making an NCAA tournament appearance.
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