By the end of last season, the USC men’s basketball team had been so ravaged by injuries that it barely resembled the team that had taken the court just months earlier.
With four of their five starters suffering season-ending injuries by the end of January, the Trojans posted the worst record (6-26, 1-17) in the program’s history, sending the team to last place in the Pac-12.
“It was a catastrophe,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “It was kind of like going to a knife fight with a spoon.”
The Trojan freefall began when senior point guard Jio Fontan tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a summer exhibition game in Brazil, causing him to take a medical redshirt year.
Over the next six months, forwards Aaron Fuller and Evan Smith and center Dewayne Dedmon suffered season-ending injuries as well, leaving sophomore guard Maurice Jones as the leader of a squad that featured two walk-ons in a seven-man rotation.
“One by one, we just started falling,” Dedmon said. “It definitely took a toll on the team, as you could see with our record at the end of the year.”
Jones has since transferred to Iowa State after being declared academically ineligible, but Fontan, Fuller and Dedmon are all back this season and are expected to form the backbone of a squad that features five transfers.
“Those guys returning that were hurt are going to have to be a big part of the team,” O’Neill said. “They all feel like they got something to prove now.”
Dedmon, a 7-foot junior who averaged 7.6 points and 5.5 rebounds last year, is a rising NBA prospect that’s expected to carry the team down low.
“He’s a potential pro, so we’re just going to go through him, feed him the ball inside,” Fontan said. “He’s starting to get more of a comfort zone on the offensive end.”
Last January, Dedmon tore his medial collateral ligament after a Colorado player fell onto his knee, leaving the Trojans with only one player taller than 6-foot-6 on the active roster.
“It was [the] nail in the coffin,” O’Neill said. “We knew we couldn’t compete without him.”
After rehabbing for several months, Dedmon was cleared for all basketball activities over the summer.
“I didn’t have to have surgery, so that was a blessing,” Dedmon said. “I just had to wait until the swelling went down so I could start working on my flexibility.”
Fuller, a redshirt senior who averaged 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds last year, wasn’t as fortunate.
After injuring both of his shoulders last summer, Fuller played through the pain for a few months before aggravating his left shoulder against UCLA on Jan. 15. Surgery and six months of daily physical therapy followed.
“I was working out a bunch of small muscles that I didn’t even really know I had,” Fuller said. “I just really wanted to get it healed and get ready for this year.”
According to Fontan, Fuller is back in full force.
“He’s still banging and aggressive as usual,” Fontan said. “His aggressive nature helps us out, kind of lifts the intensity up of the whole team.”
Fontan himself, however, has taken a bit longer to fully recover from his torn ACL — he’s still held out of a few drills for precautionary reasons, but isn’t anticipated to be limited in the season opener on Friday against Coppin State.
O’Neill still expects Fontan to lead the Trojans’ resurgence after the team crumbled without him last year.
“Last year in Brazil when he got hurt, we knew our season was doomed,” O’Neill said. “I’m just really looking forward to him having a big year. I think it’s going to be one of those years where he just breaks out and has a great go of it.”
O’Neill hasn’t finalized USC’s starting lineup outside of Fontan and Dedmon. But he’s confident that if the injury bug bites again this year, the Trojans are better equipped to swat it away.
“We might have the best depth in the country,” O’Neill said. “We have more size, more veterans… It’s a completely different team. We have a lot of work to do and we got a long way to go, but we have a good starting point.”
And there’s at least one Trojan who’s motivated by the memories of the worst year in program history.
“The season we had last year, you don’t want to go back and have a season like that again,” Dedmon said. “We got to come out and show everybody that it’s a different USC team out here.”