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USC's Nikola Vucevic has to decide on return

Coach Kevin O'Neill says he won't give a hard sell to his star player, who could jump early to the NBA.

March 17, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Nikola Vucevic's stay at USC may be coming to an end if he decides to turn pro.
Nikola Vucevic's stay at USC may be coming to an end if he decides to… (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images )

Kevin O'Neill, USC's basketball coach, will hit the road recruiting Friday — even though some Trojans fans might think his most important target is already on campus.

Nikola Vucevic, a junior forward who is USC's best player, is considering going pro early.

"Everybody says, 'Recruit Nik back,'" O'Neill said in his office Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his team's season ended with a loss against Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA tournament. "That would be insulting to Nik. I'm going to tell him facts. Nik's a smart guy. If I was to try to give him some schmoozy recruiting pitch, it ain't going to work."

Vucevic averaged 17.1 points, a Pacific 10 Conference-high 10.3 rebounds, and had 22 double-doubles as the Trojans finished 19-15. The 2011 NBA draft early-entry deadline is April 24.

2011 NCAA men's basketball championship brackets

If Vucevic enters his name in the draft, a group of nearly 20 NBA general managers and others will give him a private evaluation of his NBA potential.

For that reason, O'Neill, who has a decade of coaching experience in the NBA, said he would advise Vucevic to file. O'Neill also said he would soon call several NBA GMs to help Vucevic gather information.

After that, Vucevic will determine whether he wants to keep his name in the draft or withdraw it; the deadline to withdraw is June 13.

Vucevic said Thursday he planned to take a couple of days away from basketball, then meet with his parents and O'Neill, and that he probably won't make a decision "for a week or two."

O'Neill said Vucevic needs to work on his conditioning, strength and three-point shooting to be an NBA player.

He also said if Vucevic returns, USC would be "extremely good" next season and that Vucevic could be an All-American.

And if he doesn't come back?

"We'll be about like this year," O'Neill said.

If Vucevic returns, USC's offense will run through him and junior guard Jio Fontan, as it did this season.

But many expected more from Fontan, a Fordham transfer who averaged 10.5 points — after O'Neill declared him the team's best player before he'd played a minute at USC.

"I think I over-hyped his performance immediately coming back," O'Neill said, "And honestly I think I put too much pressure on Jio."

Fontan hadn't played in a year and a half after transferring. He became eligible in mid-December.

O'Neill said Fontan is the player he expected, but that he needs to become a "knockdown three-point shooter" and a more aggressive scorer to live up to expectations.

"And I probably need to put him in more situations to do that," O'Neill said.

O'Neill has often said the third year of a rebuilding program is the first year a program can really begin to rebuild.

Next season, with six incoming players and losing only three seniors, USC should enjoy depth it hasn't had the last two seasons.

Does that place more pressure on O'Neill to produce, especially one season removed from an NCAA tournament berth?

"If you ever have a year when you win less than the year before," he said, "everyone is mad."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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