<
>

Basketball: New-look Trojans look good

There was no hype, no hullabaloo, but the USC basketball team officially opened its 2010-2011 season with a three-hour practice Friday night at the Galen Center -- and the Trojans actually looked pretty good.

Afterward, USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said he was pleased. During? Not so much, as O'Neill was being his usual self, constantly yelling his attempts to whip his squad into shape. The players understood.

"It was a good first day," forward Alex Stepheson said after Friday's practice. "There was a lot to be learned and Coach was really getting into people, but we made some big steps today."

Big steps is the phrase of the year for this team. Big steps will need to happen regularly -- weekly, O'Neill said -- in order for the Trojans' goals to be reached.

Those goals are, in order: to win the Pac-10 regular season, to win the Pac-10 tournament and to play in the NCAA tournament. With only nine scholarship players available for the first 10 games of the season, those seem like unenviable tasks.

"We want to be an NCAA tournament team," O'Neill said. "I don't know if we will be or not, but we want to be."

In the games before junior transfer Jio Fontan becomes eligible and brings the scholarship count to 10 -- Dec. 18 at Kansas -- the Trojans will have to face, among others, Nebraska, Cal State Fullerton and Texas.

Two freshmen guards -- Bryce Jones and Maurice Jones, who are unrelated -- appear to be the key to coming out of that stretch relatively unscathed. Both players looked good Friday and both were lauded by their teammates.

Fontan said Mo Jones has been even better than he expected; O'Neill said he's "everything you want in a point guard."

"He's gonna be able to come in and do things with the ball that a lot of people don't expect him to do right from the jump," Fontan said. "I'm definitely impressed with what he can do."

Jones had a particularly great day Friday, looking much-improved from the summer. He made a number of steals that he converted into layups, and his shot looked good in limited displays.

Fontan has already taken a leadership role on the squad, practicing with the team since January after transferring from Fordham. His ability to create on the court means teammates see him as a leader -- despite the fact he'll be on the bench for almost a third of the season.

"I think he's one of the most respected guys in our locker room -- if not the most -- already," O'Neill said. "But it's difficult when you're not playing. Obviously you can do a lot more with shorts and sneakers on then you can with jeans and dress shoes. It's just the way it is."

Final notes: Weight changes: Vucevic said he's now at 255 pounds, gaining 15 from his playing weight of 240 last season; guard/forward Marcus Simmons also gained 15, from 205 to 220. Credit that to new strength and conditioning manager Shaun Brown. ...Fontan, who said he preferred having a no-frills practice compared to the Midnight Madness event many schools put on across the nation, said O'Neill told the team he would consider doing Midnight Madness next season. Said O'Neill on the topic: "I told them, 'Let's see how good you are. Hey, I'll be happy to practice from midnight to three. If they want to have midnight madness, we'll have madness.'"

***

USC forward Nikola Vucevic was the most improved player in the Pac-10 last season after he upped his averages by noteworthy margins of eight points and seven rebounds from his freshman season.

This year, he again spent the summer playing for the national team in his home country of Montenegro, going against fellow countryman and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nikola Pekovic.

See what Vucevic learned over the summer and how he feels about the coming season:

***

This will be Stepheson's first full preseason with the Trojans, and O'Neill figures it will help a great deal when midseason comes around and Stepheson is in much better shape than he was a year ago.

See what the North Carolina transfer said about his preparation, USC's lack of front-court depth and a variety of other topics after practice Friday: