Rebuilding continues at USC

Kevin O'Neill's club is off to a slow start in '10-11.

Kevin O'Neill's club is off to a slow start in '10-11.

By Ken Davis

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – We now know freshman guard Josh Selby will play for Kansas this season. The NCAA has ruled that Selby must sit out nine regular season games for accepting “impermissible benefits” prior to his signing with the Jayhawks. That means Selby, the player who might make the difference for Kansas in its quest for a return to the Final Four, will make his debut Dec. 18.

The lucky opponent to share the stage with Selby that day will be … (drum roll) … USC.

“Welcome back, right?” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said Sunday with a chuckle. “That doesn’t bother me at all. I’m one of those guys like, I don’t care who they have, we’ve just got to go and do our job.”

The Trojans will have a player debuting for them that day as well, and O’Neill thinks junior Jio Fontan can be a difference-maker for USC. Fontan is a transfer from Fordham who averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 assists as the Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Year in 2008-09.

“They’ll probably both have a few jitters,” O’Neill said of Selby and Fontan.

Fontan, a product of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., has a fascinating background. He was featured in the PBS documentary “The Street Stops Here” that focused on Bob Hurley Sr., the Hall of Fame coach at St. Anthony. Fontan’s father, Jorge, was described as someone who spent his youth in prison and then dedicated his life to helping his son avoid a life of “crime, drugs and poverty.”

O’Neill is excited about the skills and leadership Fontan will bring to his young USC squad. Fontan, a 6-footer who is a true point guard, has trimmed down from 198 to 172 pounds as he prepares for his debut with the Trojans.

“Jio can guard 1 through 3, which is great,” O’Neill said. “And Jio has experience, toughness and leadership. He was Bob Hurley’s only captain ever, so that tells you a little bit about him as a leader. He’s in fantastic shape and I know it’s killing him not to play. I can’t wait for him to be back.”

When Fontan joins the lineup, O’Neill plans to use him alongside freshman guard Maurice Jones, who ran the show and controlled tempo Sunday as the Trojans defeated New Mexico State 80-61 and improved to 3-2. Jones is listed at 5-7 but actually stands about 5-5. He has tremendous quickness and is already a catalyst to the USC defense. O’Neill says his team will hang its hat on defense until it gets more mature, and that was obvious Sunday in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off when USC had 11 steals and scored 17 points off 18 turnovers by the Aggies.

“He isn’t really going to change my role,” Jones said of Fontan. “I won’t have to do as much when Jio starts playing. He’s going to come in and be a leader.”

This is a year for patience at USC. O’Neill knows that will be hard on the loyal fans, but it is necessary after the self-imposed sanctions that resulted from an NCAA investigation into the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo era at USC. O’Neill is the coach who came in last season and has to deal with the pain, including being down one scholarship again this season. The Trojans are eligible for postseason play, but that’s going to be difficult to accomplish — especially with a schedule that includes games at Nebraska, at TCU, at Kansas, at Tennessee, and Texas at home before the end of the month.

“We want to challenge ourselves,” O’Neill said. “They’re going to learn the hard way. When it gets right down to it, if you don’t play a great schedule it comes back to bite you. Coming to play in this tournament and playing Bradley and New Mexico State, I know they’re not Kansas, but they’re good teams.”

O’Neill’s easy going personality is suited for situations like this. Don’t forget he made it through a 19-15 season at Arizona in 2007-08. And those 19 wins were later vacated because of NCAA penalties tied to Lute Olson.

“I never knew the entire year what was going on,” O’Neill said. “It was great. I was an assistant coach, then I was the interim coach, then I was named the next coach — and then I was fired. All in four months.”

O’Neill just laughs. And he knows it will take more good humor in the months ahead as USC rebounds from a drastic change in personnel brought on by the NCAA investigation into football and basketball at the school. Last Wednesday, the Trojans lost a home game to Rider by 20 points. 77-57.

It’s going to be a season full of potholes.

“They were booing and they should have been,” O’Neill said of the fans at the Rider game. “I would have booed us too.

“I think next year is our first year to really start moving in a positive direction — which is a year earlier than happens in most of these situations. And by the fourth year, we could be a very good basketball team.”

There will be times this season when Connecticut needs point guard Kemba Walker to rescue the Huskies. Last Wednesday was one of those times. UConn defeated Vermont 89-73 behind Walker’s 42 points, eight rebound and three assists. Walker, who saved the Huskies a lot of embarrassment before they left for the Maui Invitational, was 15-of-24 from the field and 4-for-9 from 3-point range. “I’ve been fortunate enough to witness some pretty good performances over the years, but Kemba’s performance was pretty special,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “Every time we needed something, he got it.”

Look who leads the Ohio State Buckeyes in scoring (18.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.7). It’s freshman power forward Jared Sullinger. The big guy is making a big impact with the Buckeyes — as expected. His best game so far? Last week against Florida he had 26 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) and 10 rebounds. He followed that with 11 points and eight rebounds against UNC-Wilmington as Ohio State improved to 3-0. The Buckeyes might be better than they were last season.

Monday, Nov. 22
Wichita State vs. Connecticut
It’s only a first-round game in the Maui Invitational, but it could set the tone for UConn’s season. The Shockers may not be the glamour team in the field, but they have the height and the strength to overpower UConn inside. A loss to Wichita State would likely mean a second-round game against Chaminade for the Huskies — something they want to avoid.

Kansas State vs. Gonzaga
Kansas State vs. Gonzaga in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. This is a great early season test for both teams, a chance to prove they deserve their high rankings in the polls.

Tuesday, Nov. 23
CBE Classic Championship
This should be Kansas State vs. Duke. The Blue Devils play Marquette in Monday’s other semifinal.

Wednesday, Nov.24
North Dakota State at Minnesota
The Gophers are 5-0 after winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Minnesota must avoid a letdown against the Bison.

Maui Invitational Championship
The brackets are lined up to produce Michigan State vs. Kentucky. But Oklahoma, Washington, Virginia, Wichita State or UConn could change that.

Thursday, Nov. 25
Boston College vs. Texas A&M
It’s an intriguing matchup between the ACC and Big 12 in the Old Spice Classic. One of these teams might catch fire after winning a game like this.

Friday, Nov. 26
NIT Season Tip-Off Championship
The winners from Wednesday’s semifinals — Villanova vs. UCLA, VCU vs. Tennessee — meet for the championship at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday, Nov. 27
Arizona vs. Kansas
This is the showcase of the Las Vegas Invitational, where Arizona should have lots of fan support.

Sunday, Nov. 28
Old Spice Classic Championship from Orlando
Look out for Wisconsin in this tournament.

76 Classic Championship from Anaheim
Virginia Tech and Temple should be the favorites here.


“I’m exhausted. In the first half, our offense wasn’t really running smoothly, so I just had to take matters into my own hands a little bit. Guys didn’t want to shoot tonight — that’s what it looked like in the first half — but I was fortunate enough to pick up the slack, fortunate enough to make baskets.” — UConn point guard Kemba Walker, after scoring 42 points in an 89-73 victory over Vermont.

“We just got to get better as a team. I give William & Mary a lot of credit. They made shots. We have to grow up fast. We’re young. We’re still immature in some ways.” — Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine (11 points, nine assists), after a 63-60 victory over William & Mary.

“If you think our guys are thinking that far in advance ... they're wondering if they’re going to get food or post-game meal money. That’s what they’re wondering. Our guys can’t think that far ahead.” — Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, after a 92-70 win over North Carolina-Greensboro, at Greenboro Coliseum, the site of the ACC tournament in March.

“It sounds like a good idea in June.” – Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell, commenting on the scheduling of a 6 a.m. game at Monmouth as part of ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. The Seawolves needed a late rally to 51-49.


Kevin Willard’s first season as coach at Seton Hall has already hit an injury speed bump. Senior guard Jeremy Hazell, the prolific scorer from Harlem, broke the scaphoid bone in his left wrist while trying to brace himself on a fall in the second half against Alabama in the Paradise Jam Friday. Hazell had scored 27 points in the game and was averaging 24 points before the injury. Matt Sweeney, Seton Hall’s assistant athletics director for communications, said Monday the Pirates are hopeful Hazell can return within four weeks if all goes well during his rehab. Jamel Jackson replaced Hazell in the starting lineup and scored just three points as the Pirates lost to Xavier, 57-52, Sunday night.

Coach Greg McDermott continues to suffer disappointment at the hands of the Iowa State Cyclones. McDermott moved to Creighton last spring after four seasons at Iowa State that came up short of expectations. Before he left, he put Creighton on the Cyclones schedule, so he had to face his old team Sunday in Des Moines. Creighton lost for the first time, and Iowa State improved to 4-0 when Jamie Vanderbeken hit a turnaround 3-pointer as time expired, giving the Cyclones a 91-88 victory. Just one problem: Photos showed the ball still in Vanderbeken’s hand with the red light on the backboard indicating time had already expired. With no TV, there was no opportunity for officials to review the play. “We’ll never know,” McDermott said. “Actually we will know, because they counted it.”

Tubby Smith is back in the national spotlight with his Minnesota team that is 5-0 after consecutive victories over North Carolina and West Virginia that gave the Golden Gophers the championship trophy in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Big Ten race is already crowded with Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin. Now Minnesota has thrown its hat in the ring, and Smith seems to have a strong nucleus built around Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber and Trevor Mbakwe, who was MVP of the tournament. It might be Mbakwe who makes the difference for Minnesota. He played 11 games at Marquette before transferring to Miami-Dade Junior College, then sat out last season after he was charged with felony assault. “It’s been four years, and I finally get the chance to go out there and show what I can do,” Mbakwe told reporters in Puerto Rico.

The justice system in college athletics is so slow — and then it’s hard to understand. Coach Bruce Pearl shouldn’t have his job after all the lies and deception under his watch at Tennessee. He gets an eight-game SEC suspension from commissioner Mike Slive. Pearl calls that sanction unprecedented, then says it won’t impact the team because he can still coach in practice and travel with the team. The Tennessee case won’t go before the NCAA committee on infractions until February at the earliest. In the middle of his SEC suspension, Pearl says he will coach when the Vols play a non-conference at Connecticut on Jan. 22. Again, where is the penalty in all this?

Congratulations to the Class of 2010 inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. The class members are: Jerry West (West Virginia), Tex Winter (Kansas State), Sidney Wicks (UCLA), Tom Jernstedt (NCAA), David Thompson (North Carolina State), Dave Whitney (Alcorn State), Christian Laettner (Duke), and Wayne Duke (Big 8, Big Ten). Perhaps no one has been a greater friend to college basketball than Wayne Duke.

Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
( and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (

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