Around this time last year, USC Trojans basketball coach Kevin O'Neill made a prediction for his team's fate for the upcoming season that proved exactly true over the course of the year.
Forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, O'Neill said last October, would carry the Trojans throughout the 2010-2011 season. They might carry them up, he implied, or they might carry them down, he didn't know for sure -- but he knew they would carry them.
Vucevic had an unexpectedly good year, vaulting himself into the first round of the NBA draft and the team into the first round of the NCAA tournament; Stepheson was effective but nowhere near dominant. And so the Trojans lost to Virginia Commonwealth in that first round, ending their seasons prematurely.
As the USC Trojans began practice Friday, seven months after the VCU loss and two months since they had last officially convened as a team in advance of the exhibition trip to Brazil, it was clear things had changed.
The fate of the 2011-2012 version of the Trojans will also depend on two players, O'Neill again says. But this time it's an all new cast of characters: Maurice Jones, who counts as one of the two, and forwards James Blasczyk, Dewayne Dedmon and Aaron Fuller, as O'Neill groups the trio together as one general 'big man.'
With supposed senior leader Jio Fontan likely out for the season with a torn ACL, those two -- er, four -- will determine just about everything with this team this year.
"What we do down the middle of the court, point guard and inside, is going to decide how good we're gonna be," O'Neill said Saturday, after the Trojans' second official practice of the season.
Moving Jones to point guard indicates an increased sense of confidence in him from O'Neill. The 5-7 sophomore was slated to play off guard this season alongside Fontan, and, when Fontan went down in Brazil, O'Neill indicated that freshman Alexis Moore would slide up into the point guard spot and Jones would stay off the ball.
"Mo's going to play the point," O'Neill said Saturday. "I don't know what it's going to do, but he's going to play the point."
Part of that is Jones, who noticeably talks and acts much more like a leader than he did last season, as a true freshman some 2,000-plus miles away from home in Michigan. And part of that is Moore, who proved over the last two months to be a risky proposition as an immediate starter.
"I just feel like it's too much pressure for him to be the starting point guard," O'Neill said. "He's going to play some point, obviously. And we're running what is probably going to be a two-guard offense, but I just don't want the pressure to be on him.
"I don't think he's ready for that yet."
Jones played the point at the start of his freshman season and had some great games, including a memorable 29-point performance in his second college contest. But his numbers tapered off toward the end of the year, and he was supplanted in the starting lineup late in the year as he began to show on-court signs of weariness.
But he's this team's No. 1 scoring option this season. USC is going to run its offense around him. And that's where the decision to move him back in control of the ball comes from.
"I'm trying to devise ways for Mo to score when he's on the ball and ways when he's off to get it back to him," O'Neill said."I think he's a special player, and I think he'll find a way."
Either he'll find a way, or the Trojans won't find theirs, either.