The USC men’s basketball team took to the court for its first practice of the semester Friday at the Galen Center, featuring an overhauled roster that is a far cry from last season’s. USC coach Kevin O’Neill welcomed back just a handful of familiar faces for the Trojans, who added five transfers and three freshmen to a squad that finished a school worst 6-26 in 2011-12.
“It’s a 360,” senior guard Jio Fontan said. “We’ve got so many guys compared to last year when we were searching for guys. We started two or three walk-ons at one time. This year, we’ve got 10 or 11 guys that can start on other teams. It’s a big difference and it gives us a lot of room to make changes, play different styles.”
The added depth means some tough decisions for O’Neill. The only starter set in stone is Fontan, who will likely assume the role of the go-to veteran for a team that only has one month to mesh together.
“Jio is going to lead this team,” O’Neill said. “He’s our best leader. The point guard on any basketball team needs to basically be the leader, unless you’re the leading scorer by a bunch.”
One of the few returning players, junior center Dewayne Dedmon, hopes to assist the newer members as they assimilate into their surroundings.
“I’ve already been around the block so I definitely feel a little bit more experienced than some of the new guys coming in,” Dedmon said, “so I can help them teach the plays and help them get used to KO’s offensive and defensive strategies.”
Dedmon is joined in the paint by two other seven-foot seniors: center James Blasczyk and junior center Omar Oraby. Oraby, a recent transfer from Rice, is a particularly interesting case: Standing at nearly 7-foot-3, he would make the Trojans taller and help improve rebounding.
Despite the additions of Oraby and others, it wasn’t exactly an ideal offseason for USC. The Trojans were dealt a blow in early September when junior guard and last year’s leading scorer Maurice Jones was ruled academically ineligible. He later decided to transfer rather than sit out a season.
“Mo leaving was tough on a personal level and a basketball level,” Fontan said. “That was my closest friend here, so I still speak to him every day, but we’ve got to move on as a team.”
To pick up the scoring load Jones leaves behind, USC will turn to former junior college guard J.T. Terrell, who played at Wake Forest two years ago as a freshman. Senior Renaldo Woolridge, a 6-foot-9 athletic forward who shot 37 percent on 3-pointers last season, transferred from Tennessee.
“I like all the new guys,” Fontan said. “J.T. [Terrell] is going to be really big-time. He has unbelievable one-on-one ability, I think he’s just starting to get accustomed to playing in a different style of basketball and having more weapons around him. Renaldo [Woolridge] was a great pickup for us, a guy who can shoot it. [Senior forward and UCI transfer] Eric Wise is an unbelievable player. Obviously Omar [Oraby] at 7-foot-3 has been able to do a lot of things that I don’t think we were expecting, especially this soon.”
As the new group of Trojans gears up for the regular-season opener on Nov. 9 against Coppin State, O’Neill will emphasize five basic principles.
“We’re trying to instill what our identity is, which is going to be great defense, rebounding the ball, low turnovers, great shots, and sharing the ball,” O’Neill said. “We have to establish a DNA of those five things.”
Fontan agrees with O’Neill’s goals for the team.
“We want to keep it as physical as possible up until the game times come,” Fontan said. “We just get that mentality to come out there and be more aggressive than other teams. We beat up on ourselves enough to where when the game starts we’ll be ready to beat up on somebody else.”
For now, Oraby must wait to see if the NCAA will approve a hardship waiver which would allow him to play immediately instead of sitting out a season.
Regardless, that hasn’t stopped Dedmon from considering the possibilities for his own game with two other centers on board.
“It makes my job a lot easier to have two other seven-footers that are taller than me,” Dedmon said. “They can guard the bigger man.”
Though Oraby offers size, O’Neill mentioned that improving conditioning and learning the system are key areas of focus for the center, who averaged 6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks for Rice last season.
“We’re big — we’re an NBA-size team,” O’Neill added. “We pass the eye test. It’s just now getting everyone on the same page, playing the same way and doing the right thing.”