His team finished just 6-26 last season, but that isn’t stopping USC guard Jio Fontan from making a bold prediction about next season's Pac-12 title race.
“To pick us outside of the top four or five would be a mistake,” Fontan told ESPN.com Wednesday.
Truth be told, Fontan’s statement isn’t all that outlandish.
USC, after all, will have a totally different look than it did last season, when it lost four projected starters (including team captain Fontan, who tore his ACL in August) to season-ending injuries. By the time the league tournament rolled around the Trojans were down to six scholarship players.
When USC opens practice this fall, it’ll welcome two transfers from Wake Forest, another from UC-Irvine and one from Tennessee. Couple that with the return of players such as Fontan, Maurice Jones, Dewayne Dedmon, Byron Wesley and Aaron Fuller, and it’s easy to see why the Trojans are confident the upcoming season will be nothing like the last one.
Fontan, who transferred from Fordham and averaged 10.5 points and 3.9 assists for USC’s NCAA tournament team in 2011, discussed a variety of topics about himself and the Trojans’ program during an interview with ESPN.com Wednesday.
What has the past year been like for you?
Jio Fontan: It’s been stressful, I’m not going to lie. This is the first time I’ve ever been injured to the point where I missed actual games within a season. I’ve missed games in the summer back in high school, but never in-season games. It’s been a learning experience. I’ve been able to watch a lot more film then I ever did before. I’ve been able to have a lot of sit-downs with K.O. (head coach Kevin O’Neill), so I’ve learned a lot more off the court than I would’ve if I would’ve been playing. So at least I benefitted from it in one way.
In what ways did you benefit from those meetings and film sessions?
Fontan: The game kind of slowed down for me. Just watching the game from the outside looking in, I got to understand a lot more about time and defensive strategy and how to guard certain guys. K.O. spent a lot of time with me watching NBA film, too. If I have the opportunity to get there, I’ll know a little bit more about what I’m getting into. It was just a whole different experience from what I thought my year would be. I was tested every day, whether it was through rehab or through K.O. quizzing me about my knowledge of the game. It woke me up and reminded me of who I was as far as being a leader like I was back in high school. I want to bring back that same championship mentality.
How is your rehab going?
Fontan: Overall, I’m doing good. I got to the seven-month mark and K.O. slowed me down a little bit. I was little ahead of where they expected me to be. K.O. wanted to slow the process down to make sure I came back 100 percent instead of trying to get through every step as fast as I could. I’m doing a lot more basketball-related stuff lately. I’m shooting lay-ups and getting involved in some drills. The next step for me will probably come in a couple of weeks, when I can get into some contact stuff.
There may not have been a more snake-bitten team in all of college basketball last season than USC. What was the mood like around the program?
Fontan: We were just unlucky. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a team that suffered so many injuries and went though so many things. It wasn’t just injuries. We had scholarships that we couldn’t even use because we had guys on scholarship who had to sit out because they’d transferred in. It was just a tough year for us overall. It was one of those years where, toward the end, we were just trying to stay afloat. It was tough to continue to be positive and continue to keep pushing when things weren’t going well. For the most part I think our guys stayed upbeat. Everyone was kind of nervous about [K.O.’s job status] -- especially the guys coming in. Once we got the news he was coming back, everyone got really excited. It’s made the summer a lot better for all of us.
You’ve been very vocal in your support of Kevin O’Neill. Why do you think he’s the right man for the job?
Fontan: The main thing I respect about him is how hard he works. He’s the type that’s in the office through all types of hours in the night. To me, K.O. is like a scientist. I’ve been around a lot of great coaches. But I’ve probably never been around a guy who watches as much film as K.O., a guy who can really break it down with all types of patterns and methods. I’ve never seen anyone study the game like that. I’ve always thought I’ve worked hard, but I didn’t always understand the most important things I should be working on. K.O. gave me that direction. When you look at other college programs like Louisville and Kentucky, who have former pro coaches, you’ve got guys who really know how to manage personalities and egos. K.O. will have that opportunity this year. He’ll get to show he can do that, because we’ve got a lot of guys on our roster now who really know how to play. His ability to manage egos and deal with guys and use them to their maximum potential will shine compared to the last two years, when we’ve been undermanned.
What excites you the most about next season’s team?
Fontan: If you don’t follow us closely, you probably don’t know much about what we’ve got. Our high school recruiting class may not seem all that great, but the guys we’ve got transferring in who couldn’t play last year ... I think five of them were top 150 recruits, guys like J.T. Terrell and Ari Stewart and Renaldo Wooldridge and Eric Wise. We’ve got a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential. We can look around the court and see that we’ve got the potential to be better at every single position.
How will this squad stack up with the rest of the Pac-12 in 2012-13?
Fontan: Our conference is developing, but to pick us outside of the top four or five would be a mistake. If you ask me if I’d rather have a guy out of high school who averages 18 points or a guy who has already played in college and averaged 16, I’ll take the college guy. Coming off a 6-26 season, we’ll understand [if people pick us low]. But if you know the game and you’re really locked into what’s happening, you’ll understand why we’re confident.