USC hoops starting over again

LOS ANGELES -- Kevin O'Neill must feel like an elementary school teacher as he enters his third season as head coach of the USC Trojans. Every summer he sends his group of kids off for break, and every fall it seems a completely different group returns.

"We are starting over for the third straight year," O'Neill said after the Trojans lost starters Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson and Donte Smith at the end of last season, as well as returning starter Jio Fontan to a knee injury during a summer exhibition trip to Brazil.

Heading into the 2011-12 season, no Pac-12 team returns fewer starters than the Trojans' one -- sophomore point guard Maurice Jones -- and no team brings back a lesser percentage of returning rebounding or blocks. Only Colorado returns less scoring than USC's 31 percent.

That lack of experience resulted in the Trojans being picked in the Pac-12 preseason media poll to finish seventh, despite a fourth-place finish and an appearance in the conference tournament semifinals last season. Of the 17 players on the USC roster, only three are seniors -- with walk-on Eric Strangis the only one on the active roster -- and 10 have never played in a game for the Trojans.

"We're kind of a work in progress right now," O'Neill said. "We return 11 points and three rebounds. We have to have a bunch of guys that haven't played at this level step up for us."

O'Neill will lean heavily on Jones, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team last season and is the team's top active returning scorer and rebounder.

"He is playing 40 minutes a game this year," O'Neill said about Jones as the two sat together at the podium. "I'm informing him of that right now."

O'Neill said the USC rotation would likely consist of either eight or nine players, and transfers will compose a large part of that.

Sophomore center DeWayne Dedmon transferred to USC from Antelope Valley (Calif.) Junior College last year and the 7-foot center with small-forward athleticism has created a significant buzz. He will team with fellow 7-0 center James Blasczyk, who transferred from Texas A&M and Lee (Texas) College. Last season, the tandem of Vucevic and Stepheson were dominant on the glass and in the paint against Pac-12 frontcourts. With sophomore forward Curtis Washington likely set to miss the season with a shoulder injury, Dedmon and Blasczyk present the only significant height for the Trojans. Dedmon has been hit with the injury bug as well, as he is practicing with a cast covering his wrist.

Aaron Fuller, a 6-6, 235-pound power forward who transferred from Iowa, will join the front line and should give the Trojans a tough, left-handed presence capable of picking up more than his share of the rebounding slack.

The fourth transfer is sharpshooting guard Greg Allen, a 6-3, 180-pound junior making his way in from Navarro (Texas) College. Without Smith and Fontan this season, Allen will likely be called on to provide a bulk of the 3-point shooting. That is something he is comfortable doing, having hit nearly 40 percent of his long-distance shots last year.

Sophomore forwards Garrett Jackson and Evan Smith are the only other scholarship players with any playing experience, and Smith will be out six to eight weeks because of a shoulder injury. The Trojans are looking for Jackson to take a big step forward this season. He logged minutes in 33 of 34 games last season, and in the seven games in whihc he saw more than 15 minutes of action he averaged 7.9 points and made 60 percent of his field goal attempts.

"We lose two full recruiting classes," O'Neill said when asked about the large number of transfers on the roster. "We really had no choice. We decided to bring in some guys by juco and transfer that could give us some guys with age on them. If we didn't have these guys in the junior and senior classes, we wouldn't have a team this year."

Even with the older players, it should be interesting to see just what type of team the Trojans have this season. Two roles that played a huge part in USC's success last season -- the leadership presented by Fontan and defensive presence offered by Marcus Simmons -- remain empty as the Trojans ready themselves for the season. O'Neill said there is no way to replace either of those positions with a single player, and hopes the overall team defense is able to take a step forward along with the play of Jones.

"I've told Mo this, but I need him to do more all the time," O'Neill said. "We need Mo to go back to playing like he did in high school, where he averaged 30 [points] and 10 [assists] and was an attack guy at all times."

O'Neill said that if something were to happen to Jones, the Trojans would have a tough time being competitive at this level, and joked that the coaching staff has advised the sophomore guard from going to class, for fear he might injure himself.

Three freshmen will push for playing time in the backcourt for USC this season, as point guard Alexis Moore and shooting guards Byron Wesley and Danilo Dragovic might need to grow up in a hurry in order to provide minutes behind the starters.

O'Neill said that things have been up and down in the two weeks of practice since Fontan's injury.

"Sometimes we look really good; sometimes we stink," he said.

But even with the number of question marks again surrounding an O'Neill-led USC team, the Trojans head coach is looking forward to finding answers with a new group of players.

"We have as hard a playing group as I've had," O'Neill said. We're going to guard you. We're going to be good defensively. I think we have a chance to improve daily as we go forward."

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.