LOS ANGELES -- After losing five of their top seven scorers from last season’s team, the USC men’s basketball team was expected to struggle offensively. When team leader Jio Fontan went down with a knee injury during a preseason exhibition game in Brazil, thoughts shifted to whether the Trojans would be able to score at all.
USC coach Kevin O’Neill echoed those sentiments during Pac-12 media day, when his said his team would continue to play tough defense, but baskets would likely be scarce. O’Neill spoke at length about how the Trojans would lean heavily on point guard Maurice Jones and how they’d go only as far as the sophomore point guard could take them.
Through 17 games, it hasn’t been very far. Jones has played much of this season as if he has been forced to literally carry the team on his back. He has been asked to play point guard and be the team’s leading scorer -- a combination that doesn’t often lead to successful offense. He has also rarely been able to catch his breath, as he has played fewer than 35 minutes in just one game this season.
Over the Trojans’ five-game losing streak, Jones has made just 17 of 67 shots -- 25 percent shooting from the floor -- and has gone 2-for-14 from 3-point range. Though it’s tough to find too much fault with Jones, who has taken nearly 100 more shots than any other player on the roster, as freshmen Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley continue to acclimate to this level and big men Aaron Fuller and Dewayne Dedmon fight through injuries.
“To have a good team, the point guard needs to run the show; he doesn’t need to be the show,” former USC basketball player Chris Penrose said. “There’s so much pressure on Mo’s shoulders.”
The loss of Fontan is largely responsible for the ineffective offense. With Fontan and Jones able to share the distribution and scoring loads, the Trojans would be far more potent offensively. His injury also carried a psychological weight for a young, inexperienced team. More than halfway into the season, USC still hasn’t found an answer for the offense or on-court leadership Fontan would have added.
“When you lose someone like Jio, it’s going to have a huge impact,” Penrose said. “You would expect a team to come out of the gates slowly, but I’m surprised it hasn’t picked up.”
Defensively, the Trojans have been fantastic. They rank first in the conference and 11th in the nation, allowing 55.9 points per game. At the other end, USC’s 53.9 points per game is good for 334th in the country, ahead of just four teams.
The Trojans will take their 0-4 conference mark into a home game against UCLA on Sunday. The Bruins are coming off a sweep of the Arizona schools and boast one of the best frontcourts in the conference.
The Trojans aren’t going to turn their season around with one win and playing for the postseason seems out of the question at this point. But Penrose said the team has a chance to rise up to the challenge of the ensuing schedule and rid itself of the cloud that has hung over the program since Fontan’s injury.
“Right now you’re past the idea of setting a goal for the season,” Penrose said. “The likelihood of making the post season is out of the question unless they win the conference tournament, so what do you do when you’re the underdog in the tournament? You always talk about taking it one game at a time. Right now you say, let’s focus on UCLA and try to win that game. Then you focus on Oregon and try to win that game.”
With so much youth and inexperience, it’s easy to fall into a self-defeating pattern when a team doesn’t find success early on. There has been talk about the Trojans putting together a big season next year, when transfers Ari Stewart and Eric Wise will be eligible, along with a possible sixth year of eligibility for Fontan. But shifting focus won’t benefit this year’s team or the program down the line.
“A lot of people are talking about next year, but as a player this year, you still want to win games, and that’s really hard to deal with,” said Penrose, likening the situation to one he faced while at USC, when Henry Bibby was fired after just four games and attention wandered. “Everyone was talking about next year and some of the older guys completely checked out. It was a tough mix.
A win Sunday might not salvage the season, but it would be a reminder that this team still has its head in the game. Penrose said he has witnessed a few bright spots this year, singling out Fuller’s play in the post -- although recent shoulder injuries have hampered him -- and Moore’s determination to become more of a shooter.
“They needed someone to step up and become that outside threat,” Penrose said. “Moore has taken more of that shooting responsibility and tried to add something to the offense.”
Moore could prove to be a key component of Sunday’s game. With UCLA able to protect the paint with its length, developing an outside game could be key for USC. Though the Trojans have made just eight of their last 48 3-point attempts, they have found a way to beat the Bruins at least one time in each of the last four seasons. This weekend, they’ll get their first shot of 2012.