Prior to the Kansas game, USC basketball coach Kevin O’Neill began politicking for a bid. Although the Trojans entered that contest a mediocre 6-4, they had played the first ten games without star transfer Jio Fontan. O’Neill repeatedly said that Fontan was USC’s best player, and he has shown it so far. In his first week on the court (3 games), Fontan has led USC to an upset over Tennessee, a blowout of Lehigh, and a near upset of No. 3 Kansas in Lawrence. 8-5 is not a very impressive non-conference record, but O’Neill has subtly tried to get the selection committee to put a considerable amount of weight on the Fontan era and ignore the start to the season. By the coach’s estimation, the Trojans would be 11-2 if the transfer guard had been on the floor for every game.
While it serves O’Neill’s interest to say that, the coach may not be too far off base. USC’s offense has looked much better with Fontan in the mix. Under O’Neill, the Trojans had struggled mightily against any form of zone defense. Their best performances had come when teams played man-to-man, but those occasions were rare because teams know the Trojans’ weakness. Fontan’s presence has allowed USC to work the ball inside because teams are now worried about the guard play. Fontan’s shooting, along with the emergence of Donte Smith, have freed up the middle for Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson to dominate inside. When either of those two draw a double team, they can kick it back out to one of the guards who can cut to the basket or knock down a jump shot. Most importantly, Fontan has added much needed depth to the roster. O’Neill only utilized a seven man rotation and freshman guard Maurice Jones was forced to play nearly every minute. While Mo Jones played very well, trotting him out there for every minute had to be wearing on him. Furthermore, Fontan has proven to be a more valuable offensive force. The junior transfer leads the team averaging over 16 points per game and is shooting an astounding 54.5%
Before the season started, Kevin O’Neill stated that his team’s goal was to win 20 games and secure an NCAA Tournament bid in a radio interview with student station KXSC. At 8-5, USC will need to go 12-7 in Pac-10 play to achieve the benchmark. The Trojans went 8-10 last year in conference, but the conference doesn’t appear much better than last year and USC is firing on all cylinders with Jio Fontan running the show. Even if the Trojans don’t reach the 20-win benchmark for an NCAA bid, a top 3 finish in Pac-10 ply with Fontan would make a very solid case. The committee would be inclined to take a team that finished strong, and it is hard to ignore how much better these Trojans are with Fontan. Wednesday’s opener against Washington will tell a lot about USC’s chances for success in the Pac-10 as the Huskies are the preseason favorite to win the regular season title.
USC Basketball Resume:
Quality Wins: #20 Texas (73-56), @ #18 Tennessee (65-64)
Bad Losses: Rider (77-55), Bradley (64-63), Nebraska (60-58), TCU (81-69)