Coach: Maurice Jones key for USC
LOS ANGELES -- After the first weekend of practices this October with his 2011-12 team, USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill said he'd essentially be in front of a bus if anything were to happen to star guard Maurice Jones this season.
Friday, he showed he wasn't joking.
At Pac-12 media day at L.A. Live, the third-year coach advised Trojan fans not to attend any home contests if Jones gets hurt this season because the team will be terrible.
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"Don't come to the games," O'Neill said at the podium. "It'll be ugly. Don't show up. If we don't have this guy, it'll be very difficult for us to be competitive in major college games."
The Trojans lost expected top player Jio Fontan to a torn ACL in August, moving Jones from shooting guard to the point and thrusting him into the starring role. It's a lot to handle for a sophomore who doesn't turn 20 until December, but O'Neill insists he can handle it just fine -- given time.
"For me it's a process right now trying to get Mo to do more all the time," O'Neill said. "Because of the make-up of our team, he has to be in attack mode all the time. He's going to be a great defender. He's got to be prepared to play 40 minutes a game. He's got to lead.
"That is a hard thing to do for a guy that's just starting his sophomore year."
Jones started USC's first 25 games a season ago, playing the second-most minutes on the team (34.5). He averaged 9.9 points and 3.2 assists per game, second and third on the team, respectively. His 29 points in the second game of the season were the most scored by a Trojan all year long.
He's listed at a generous 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, which can lead to trouble given his penetrating style of play and the heights and weights of opponents he bangs elbows with in the key. He was bothered by a number of nagging injuries a season ago and has been limited in practice so far this season because of a sprained ankle.
"I've just got to be more careful trying not to get hurt and things like that," Jones said Friday. "But still practice, play hard and things like that. I don't take it lightly. I've still got to give 100 percent while I'm out there."
USC finished 19-15 a year ago, in O'Neill's second season on the job. The Trojans snuck into the NCAA tournament field and trekked to the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, only to get bounced out in the first game by tourney unknown Virginia Commonwealth, who made it all the way to the Final Four.
From that team, USC lost leading scorer and leading rebounder Nikola Vucevic to the NBA draft, starting forwards Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons and guard Donte Smith to graduation and now Fontan to injury.
Jones is the only returning player who played more than six minutes in the loss to VCU. And that's why, O'Neill said, he used the bus analogy to describe how he'd feel -- and how his job security would be -- if Jones were to go down with any sort of long-term injury.
The coach needs his star guard to stay afloat in the Pac-12 this season.
"What I was trying to do is give you guys an idea of how badly we need him," O'Neill said Friday. "I need him to do more all the time.
"His impact on our team with Jio out is unbelievable. If he's in trouble or gets hurt, we're in real trouble."
Pedro Moura covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com.