Hit hard by injuries and a school-record 26 losses last season, the Southern California Trojans are eager to put the ugliness behind them and make a big turnaround led by point guard Jio Fontan.
The projected star of the program has mostly been off the court the last two seasons after transferring from Fordham. Fontan played just half a season in his USC debut, then missed all of last season after he tore his ACL during a summer exhibition tour in Brazil.
He wasn't the only player to go down. Forward Aaron Fuller, the team's second-leading scorer, hurt his left shoulder and center Dewayne Dedmon, the No. 3 scorer, tore his ACL, cutting their seasons short.
By season's end, the Trojans had just six scholarship players available. They finished 6-26 — 1-17 in the Pac-12 — after averaging 53 points and shooting 39 percent from the floor.
Now Fontan is healthy and looking forward to finally playing an entire season alongside a mix of transfers and newcomers under coach Kevin O'Neill.
"We're just flipping the page, starting a new chapter and trying to take advantage of this," Fontan said. "We've got a lot of guys who only have one year left and we all have the same goal — win big."
Fontan will anchor the backcourt with his ability to score and distribute. Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell could start at shooting guard. Sophomore Byron Wesley, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, is another likely starter.
Maurice Jones led the Trojans in scoring last season while playing 38 minutes a game in Fontan's absence. He was going to miss this year because of academic reasons and was expected to return in 2013-14, but abruptly transferred to Iowa State last week.
O'Neill has depth to replace him. Greg Allen started eight games last season, and freshman Brendyn Taylor brings an NBA pedigree. His father, Brian, played in the pros.
"Last year we didn't have that deep of a bench," Fuller said. "Not like this year where we have a good rotation going on where we have guys that we can trust to get the job done."
Fuller and the 7-foot Dedmon figure to start in the frontcourt. Dedmon didn't start playing organized basketball until he was a senior in high school. The junior's agility and quickness already led O'Neill to predict that he'll eventually make it to the pros.
"We're here to prove that we're better than a six-win team, so we're just going to come out with a lot of intensity," Dedmon said. "It's definitely important to have Jio back as a leader on and off the court because he's a big-time player."
Three other transfers could bolster the front line. Ari Stewart from Wake Forest, Renaldo Woolridge from Tennessee and Eric Wise from UC Irvine will be competing for playing time at forward.
"We have depth. We have experience. We have size," said O'Neill, entering his fourth year at USC. "How quickly we jell and learn to play together remains to be seen. But we've got leadership in Jio. We have a lot of pieces, and now it's our job to put those pieces together."
The Trojans' style of play will change to an aggressive tempo from the plodding, deliberate game O'Neill was forced to play the last couple of years because of the lack of size and depth.
"When you're this deep, you want to push the game," Fontan said. "You want to make the tempo as fast and, at the same time, controlled as possible because we've got a lot of weapons and a lot of subs than we can make to get guys in, which won't lower the level of expectations on the coaches or our level of play."
O'Neill has reason to feel more confident this year than he has at any time in his tenure. He arrived in the wake of an ongoing NCAA investigation and the departure of O.J. Mayo after one season. The following season he lost three starters and a handful of other players. Then came last season and the slew of injuries.
"Last year was very difficult because of our injuries and the fact that when I got here there was no freshmen or sophomores, so we had two blank recruiting classes," he said. "The only way you can put it back together to get where we have the bodies we have now is with junior college guys, transfers and blend in a few freshmen. Now our goal is to get mostly freshmen going forward, which we're doing. We have four guys committed right now and we're hoping to get one more, and we're starting to build what I think is a really solid program."
The Trojans open the season at home Nov. 9 against Coppin State. They host defending Big West champion Long Beach State before heading to the Maui Invitational and then return home to play defending Mountain West champion San Diego State.