USC guard Jio Fontan jumps past Cal defender Markhuri SandersFrison for… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The train wreck that was USC basketball began last year before the season did, when Jio Fontan sustained a serious knee injury.
It worsened from there, loss by loss, injury by injury, until at the end of last season the Trojans had six scholarship players and a school-record 26 losses.
Coach Kevin O'Neill said he can usually leave a rough season behind pretty easily. "But it took a long time to get over that season," he said. "It was hard. Really hard."
USC starts anew Friday night against Coppin State at the Galen Center with Fontan back in the lineup as captain. And how has he come back? Well, O'Neill recently called him the top point guard in the Pac-12 Conference.
But this season, the Trojans should have more than just Fontan. They also will suit up five Division I transfers who will be eligible this season, including 7-foot-2 center Omar Oraby, who was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA enabling him to play without sitting out a season.
Unlike in last season, O'Neill has options, and he says competitive talent runs about 10 players deep. USC will also have experience, with 10 upperclassmen on scholarships.
"We're in here this year and hopefully we can turn the program back around," said guard J.T. Terrell, a transfer from Wake Forest who is expected to start.
With those pieces, the Trojans plan to run more and play up-tempo on offense, a marked shift from the grinding, low-scoring scheme for which O'Neill is known.
"It's like any car," O'Neill said. "If you have a big-engine car, you can go faster than if you have a small-engine car."
The big question is whether USC's new pieces will fit together. Kentucky makes it work because it reloads with future NBA lottery picks.
USC is not Kentucky.
"Everybody is jelling together well, especially with the leadership of our captain, Jio," 7-foot post man Dewayne Dedmon said. "He keeps everybody in line."
Fontan shrugged off the compliment, saying a sense of urgency keeps the Trojans focused -- urgency because their eligibility clocks are ticking.
Of the 10 total transfers on USC's roster -- the most transfers of any team from a Bowl Championship Series conference -- four have two seasons of eligibility left and six have only one.
Fontan is one of the six. He said that his left knee is healthy and that he's in the best shape of his college career, which began at Fordham in New York City.
As for O'Neill, he doesn't imagine he could survive another season like the last one.
He said most coaches -- unless they're Kentucky's John Calipari, North Carolina's Roy Williams or of that stature -- are always only two bad seasons from being fired.
"So I'm one [season] into that," he said.