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Wednesday, January 18, 2012
On Jio Fontan, Kevin O'Neill and USC basketball

By Pedro Moura

Jio Fontan tore the ACL in his left knee on August 16, 2011 and underwent surgery to reconstruct it on Sept. 13.

That means he's had about four months of proper recovery time, far less than the 6-9 months typically thrown around as a basic guideline for athletes with ACL tears.

But Fontan, the 22-year-old New Jersey native who was supposed to be the starting point guard and captain of the 2011-2012 USC Trojans as a senior, believes he's roughly six weeks ahead of schedule and nearing full recovery. He thinks he'll have a chance to return to the court in the coming weeks and help the struggling Trojans (5-13, 0-5 in the Pac-12) salvage bits and pieces out of this season.

Now, the question is whether anyone else does -- and, most importantly, Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill's opinion of the whole thing.

Once Fontan gets official approval from the team trainers to return to the court -- if he gets it, that is -- he'll have to meet with O'Neill and come up with a solution the two can agree upon: Will he play or won't he?

"I'm sure he will (beg me to play)," O'Neill told ESPNLosAngeles.com Tuesday. "But I'm not gonna do anything that would jeopardize his career in any way. Because I think the guy has a chance to be a good player and play for money somewhere.

"I'm gonna do the best thing by him first and worry about us second. I would never jeopardize a player's career for my team's quote personal gain."

That may not be the most popular approach in the world, considering the Trojans' current status in the standings. But O'Neill insists he's told the same thing to his players over and over since getting to USC in June of 2009 and will not budge from it. It's up to Fontan to convince him that playing this year would be best for him and the team.

"When I feel like I can even argue with him, then I'll do it," Fontan said this week. "Because he's definitely going to argue with me. He'll be like, 'Jio, you know, I'm not stupid. You're not gonna get past me with this.' So I have to really have my stuff together before I approach him."

So, how long does he have to approach him?

USC's season could end as early as March 7, the date of the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. Anything more than a second-round exit for the Trojans in the conference tourney would, at this point, be a gigantic surprise. And the second round of the Pac-12 tourney is exactly 50 days from today.

Fontan legitimately believes he's capable of participating in it.

"It'd be a dream to win the Pac-12 tournament and go to the NCAA tourney," Fontan said. "I don't think there's too much I could get out of it, except for the chance to play and show what I can do. If I can't do that 100 percent or close to it or good enough to help, I don't think it's worth coming back."

Good enough to help is an interesting concept. It's clear by now that the Trojans would not have been a tournament-caliber team even with Fontan's services, but they would have been a heck of a lot better than they are now.

There really isn't a point guard on the roster. Fontan would fix that immediately and would also add a reliable outside shooter. Those two aspects are the single biggest things missing from USC's team this season.

But because of those things, they're going to be very, very far in the hole by the time he could come back. How much of an impact could he really have if he were to come back with, say, a week left in the regular season and play two Pac-12 games and the tournament?

"If we were like 8-7 right now, I'd probably be thinking, man, I gotta rush back so we can get to the tournament," Fontan said. " Last year, we were around the same thing, 8-7, and that turned into 14-7 out of nowhere. Right now, I look at our 5-13 record and it's still the same feeling of wanting to come back, so we wouldn't be this bad and I can try to help as much as I can."

On a slightly different note, Fontan backs his head coach heavily. "As unbiased as I can be," he says, "I think he's doing as good as anybody else in his position would be doing."

But he's also very aware of the talk around the team of late. He knows people are calling for O'Neill to be fired. And he knows his teammates could make the calls even louder if they lose this week against Oregon and Oregon State and next week against Utah and Colorado.

He can't play. But he can try to lead.

"We definitely don't want to finish the year and lose out," Fontan said Tuesday. "I've heard a lot of jokes about that. That's definitely not in our plans."