USC coach Kevin O'Neill had nothing but effusive praise for guard Jio Fontan last season before he had even appeared in a single game for the Trojans. The Fordham transfer was coming, and it was going to be awesome.
So you can imagine how O'Neill felt today upon learning that a magnetic resonance imaging exam had confirmed his biggest fear. Fontan, the team's returning leading scorer, had torn an anterior cruciate ligament during the team's preseason tour of Brazil and would need knee surgery that would cost him the entire 2011-12 season.
"I couldn't feel worse for any player I've coached in my career," O'Neill said in a statement from Brazil. "Jio is the heart and soul of our team and had become a high-level player. His loss is a huge blow to our team."
Fontan averaged 10.4 points points as a junior after becoming eligible in December and started in the backcourt on a team that captured an NCAA tournament bid. He had already showed signs this summer that his scoring would greatly increase. In the Trojans' first two games in Brazil, he scored 29 points and then poured in 28 the following day. But in the third game, Fontan took a hit while going to the basket and landed awkwardly.
The injury could have significant ramifications on the Pac-12 race. USC, like many teams in the league, lost a player to the NBA -- Nikola Vucevic -- but the Trojans felt like they had a chance to be good. It's not as if there is a consensus preseason favorite in the conference, and USC could have made some noise.
Now O'Neill will have to expect big things at guard from Maurice Jones as well as untested freshman Alexis Moore. Earlier in the summer, O'Neill also talked up 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon as a big-time contributor even though he too had never played Division I basketball. The injury bug had already bitten the Trojans, as forward Curtis Washington is out for the season, so depth could be an issue.
But don't expect O'Neill to play up the woe-is-me act with his team. Since he took over as coach the Trojans have gone through a postseason ban and bounced back.
"We are determined to move forward and do what we've done the past two years, which is fight like Trojans and have a great season," O'Neill said. "We as a team are undaunted by this loss and we will play great basketball for our fans."