With guard Jio Fontan out for the season because of injury, USC is hoping… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Their captain was out for the season before it ever began.
Now, without senior guard Jio Fontan, USC is a "rudderless ship," according to Coach Kevin O'Neill.
So aimlessly the Trojans will head into the basketball season, which begins Nov. 11 against Cal State Northridge, short on experience and talent, with only a dream of a return visit to the NCAA tournament.
"We're going to have an interesting year, to say the least," O'Neill said.
Times staff writer Baxter Holmes looks at USC's five most pressing issues as it begins practice Friday:
Looking for a leader
After losing three key seniors, and junior forward Nikola Vucevic to the NBA, the Trojans had two starters returning this season before Fontan, their floor leader and leading returning scorer (10.5 points), blew out his left knee during a summer exhibition trip to Brazil.
Now, USC has only two players on its roster who even scored a season ago: guard Maurice Jones (9.9 points) and forward Garrett Jackson (3.2).
"Our problem is going to be lack of experience," O'Neill said.
It's an all-around issue, but at guard, freshmen Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley and sharpshooting junior college transfer Greg Allen will share the bulk of Fontan's leftover minutes.
Sophomore 7-footer DeWayne Dedmon broke his shooting (right) hand Tuesday and could be out for a month.
He was tabbed as the team's breakout star and a potential NBA lottery pick down the line, but Dedmon didn't even begin playing organized basketball until his senior year of high school, so he's extremely raw.
"He's the best athlete of his size I've seen, including in the NBA," O'Neill said. "He's really talented that way, but he doesn't know how to play."
Frontcourt taking shape?
USC's defense should be its usual stingy self, but its plan for an up-tempo offense changed after Fontan went down.
"We're basically starting from scratch," O'Neill said.
When Dedmon returns, he, 6-foot-6 forward Aaron Fuller and 7-foot center James Blasczyk probably will play together in stretches to form a front line that's imposing but not much else.
Fuller, a former honorable mention All-Big Ten at Iowa, is tough but undersized.
Blasczyk is aggressive and runs well, but he's not a great athlete and, like Dedmon, he's raw.
Carrying a big load
Jones logged 34.5 minutes a game last season and wore down as it dragged on, which is why he and Fontan began splitting point guard duties.
But with Fontan out, USC will need a lot more from the 5-foot-7 sophomore, the shortest player in the Pacific 12 Conference.
"He's going to be the anchor of our team," O'Neill said.
A lot is riding on Jones' slender shoulders. USC just hopes not to ride him too much.
O'Neill's a fan of tough opponents, so the nonconference portion of USC's schedule is a minefield.
It includes San Diego State (34-3 last season), Nevada Las Vegas (24-8), either North Carolina (26-7) or South Carolina (14-16), Nebraska (19-13), New Mexico (22-13), Georgia (20-12) and Kansas (35-3).
"Our guys are going to figure out if they're any good or not by early December," O'Neill said.
USC fans probably won't have to wait that long to find out.