By Jon Rothstein
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With just over three weeks until the beginning of college football season, there is nationwide buzz that this is the year USC retakes it’s place among the legitimate contenders for the National Championship.
Lane Kiffin’s squad is finally off probation and the Trojans look like they have all the requisites to once again compete for the the gridiron’s richest prize.
But Kiffin isn’t the only coach at USC brimming with optimism.
Just one year after the Trojans’ basketball program won a mere six games and earned just one victory in PAC-12 play, USC coach Kevin O’Neill has assembled a team more than capable of legitimately finishing in the conference’s top third.
A year ago, USC’s roster was decimated by injuries and lacked seasoning. Now just 12 months later, the Trojans are versatile, grizzled, and exceptionally deep.
“Our workouts have been great,” O’Neill said recently. “For the first time in three years, we have a full complement of players. There’s 13 or 14 guys on our team that can legitimately play minutes. We’ve got great depth.”
The Trojans also have experience.
Last season, USC returned an average of just over 15 points per game. This year, they return over 100.
Jio Fontan, the dynamite guard from New Jersey who missed last season with an ACL tear figures to be this team’s perimeter catalyst, just as he was in 2011 when the Trojans reached the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s going to be one of the best lead guards in the whole country,” O’Neill said of Fontan, who scored 57 points in two games during last summer’s trip to Brazil before getting injured. “He was playing at a first round draft choice level before he got hurt.”
Fontan should also benefit from more ancillary pieces to work with.
Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell is the likely starter at shooting guard and averaged 11.1 points per game for the Demon Deacons in 2011.
“He’s going to be a significant piece,” O’Neill said of Terrell. “He’s just learning for the first time in his life how hard you have to work at this level.”
Jet quick guard Maurice Jones, a 5-7 junior who led USC in scoring last season, should see more time off the ball and could potentially flourish as a 6th man.
“He reminds me of Earl Boykins,” O’Neill said of Jones. “He’s much better when he’s off the ball.”
O’Neill is also very high on 6-5 sophomore Byron Wesley, who really came on strong at the end of last season, averaging 14.5 points in USC’s final ten games.
“He may have had the best summer out of anyone on our team,” O’Neill said of Wesley.
The Trojans also bring in former Tennessee wing Renaldo Woolridge, a 6-9 forward who started 20 games for the Volunteers during his career in Knoxville, and UC Irvine transfer Eric Wise who sat out last season. Woolridge will be eligible to play immediately as he’s pursuing a graduate degree while Wise was a major performer during his first three seasons of college basketball, averaging 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in 2011.
“He’s going to be an impact guy,” O’Neill said of Wise. “He’s a veteran who knows how to play. He’s going to be a play maker for us on the break. He’s down 50 pounds. He looks tremendous.”
The Trojans should be exceptionally long and skilled up front. In addition to Wise, O’Neill returns power forward Aaron Fuller, who produced at a high level last year despite a shoulder injury (10.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG), as well as Wake Forest transfer Ari Stewart and 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon, who also battled injuries in 2011-12.
Freshman forward Strahinja Gavrilovic is also a potential factor because of his size and skill at 6-8.
“We’re really long and have great overall size,” O’Neill said. “There will be times when we’ll play a front line of 7-foot, 6-9, and 6-9. Aaron (Fuller) is playing at a really high level despite not playing for six months because of his shoulder and Ari Stewart is a guy whose going to play major minutes for us at both small and power forward.”
After a season in which USC had no depth, they’ve drastically upgraded their roster and augmented their level of talent. With so many capable players, no one with the exception of maybe Fontan seems to have a lock on one specific spot in the rotation.
“The fact that guys have to compete for minutes on a daily basis means a lot,” O’Neill said. “It’s only going to make us better.”
And so will the Trojans’ arduous non conference schedule.
In addition to the PAC-12, USC will take part in the Maui Invitational and play road games at Georgia, New Mexico, and Nebraska. The Trojans will also host San Diego State, Minnesota, Dayton, and Big West favorite Long Beach State.
A daunting task?
Maybe, but the pieces are there for O’Neill to have this team battle tested for conference play and potentially playing their best basketball in February and March.
Dare we say it, but USC could very well be back.
And not just on the gridiron.
What do you expect from the Trojans in 2012-13? Be heard in the comments below!