USC's 'best player,' Jio Fontan, to debut

His players have learned quickly: When USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill yells at you during practice, you stop what you're doing and listen.

And listen some more.

And wait until he's done talking and gives you the OK to start doing what you were doing again.

So, yes, it was a little bit surprising to hear a different voice come from the court during one of O'Neill's infamous tirades during an evening practice this week.

O'Neill was taking a break between insults -- er, motivational comments -- directed at freshman forward Garrett Jackson for not making the right read off an inbounds play. By the looks of things, he had something else still left to say, but Jio Fontan sensed that Jackson and the team had heard enough and stopped his coach in his tracks.

"OK guys, let's go," Fontan said, passing the ball back out to Jackson and starting the play once again.


Yes. But the player-coach relationship between Fontan, 20, and O'Neill, 53, is nothing if not unusual.

The on-court, in-game relationship will start Saturday at 9 a.m. PST, when USC takes on No. 3 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and Fontan makes his Trojans debut after a one-year delay.

But when did it really start? Last December, when Fontan publicly announced he would transfer from Fordham and began compiling a list of potential schools. He visited Miami and made plans to look at Tennessee and Alabama, and then took a weekend visit to USC to meet the persistent O'Neill and his Trojans.

By Monday morning, he had committed, sold on O'Neill's pitch. Three weeks later, he began practicing with the team, a hefty 15 pounds overweight after spending the winter break -- as he recounted it -- doing nothing but eating. Teammates called him "fat boy," he recalls.

But even then his potential was clear. Fontan was the last Trojan to remain on the court after his first practice ended at USC's Galen Center, working on his free throw stroke with the student managers. Throughout the rest of that season, while Fontan sat on the sidelines and itched to get back on the floor, he watched senior point guard Mike Gerrity work his magic with the team once he became eligible after the first semester.

"My goal is not to top Gerrity in any way," he says now. "It's just to come in and try to mesh well, fit in and make the team better."

As a freshman at Fordham, Fontan averaged a team-leading 15.3 points and 4.7 assists per game, but it's important to note that his stats weren't all positive. He shot only 38 percent from the field, 60 percent from the stripe and posted a 1.3/1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Oh, and his team won only three games.

But his basketball fundamentals are what really gets O'Neill gushing. At the preps level, Fontan was trained by Bob Hurley, the legendary St. Anthony High of Jersey City coach with 23 state championships and dozens of Division I players to his credit.

Even in practice, Hurley's influence is easily visible within Fontan's controlled style of play.

USC first-year assistant coach Tony Miller played for O'Neill for four years at Marquette in the mid-1990s. He compares the daily on- and off-court interactions O'Neill and Fontan share now to the ones he shared with O'Neill 15 years ago and laughs at the similarities -- noting, simultaneously, the inherent benefits of Fontan's smarts.

"Jio, as a player, you don't have to say much to him," Miller says. "He pretty much already knows what mistakes he's made.

"He understands the game. He sees exactly what [O'Neill] sees."

Says O'Neill, in no uncertain terms: "He's our best player. He's our best leader. He's our best scorer. He's our best defender. He's our best passer. He's our best guard. He's our best player."

USC has had to play 10 games without Fontan this season, and -- as expected -- they've been a struggle. Losses to mid-majors Bradley and Rider, in particular, stick out as games the Trojans wish they had won -- and, in O'Neill's view, they would have won those games if Fontan had been eligible to play.

And the playing time for the Trojans' reliables is piling up. Freshman point guard Maurice Jones ranks seventh in the nation in minutes per game; junior forward Nikola Vucevic is also in the top 50. O'Neill has simply had very few alternatives, being forced to rely on a seven-man rotation in every close game.

That'll change some with Fontan added to the mix.

"It's gonna be a big help for us to have him back," says Vucevic, the Trojans' leading scorer with 16.5 points per game. "I think it's going to be even better than last year when Mike Gerrity came back.

"Jio's a really good player, and we really need him."

O'Neill declines to say where he plans to play Fontan -- i.e., as a true point guard, displacing Jones, or as a combination guard playing off the ball, replacing freshman Bryce Jones. But the coach has already guaranteed that Fontan will start Saturday's game, and judging from the team's practice sets, Maurice Jones will stick to point guard and Fontan will play shooting guard.

That will allow the Trojans to speed up their often slow-moving offense quite a bit, a welcome development for all involved.

Speaking in his Galen Center office after practice as Kansas looms, O'Neill admits he may be overplaying his deck a bit by calling Fontan his "best player." Then, in his next breath, he takes it back.

"We're all going to expect too much from Jio," he says. "Myself included.

"But any game that I can have Jio in, I want to have him."