|USC is enigmatic, but in a good way. This team could surprise in 2012-13. (US Presswire)|
LOS ANGELES -- They are the self-proclaimed "Second-Chance Kids."
Jio Fontain is actually on his third opportunity, if you count the transfer from Fordham and the knee injury that ended his senior campaign before it ever began a year ago. J.T. Terrell and Ari Stewart both landed out this way after issues at Wake Forest, with Terrell getting tossed following an underage DIU and Stewart leaving after an academic suspension.
Eric Wise has dropped in excess of 50 pounds after transferring in from UC Irvine and Aaron Fuller is healthy after the Trojans top rebounder and second-leading scorer had shoulder surgery in January. Renaldo Woolridge transferred in for his final go-around from Tennessee after spending much of his career as a role guy in Knoxville.
"We've got a team full of guys that are trying to take advantage of another opportunity, many of us our last opportunity," Fontan said.
USC finished with just a single league win last season, so Fontan and his teammates understand why there isn't much hype -- even though this group is more talented, deeper and healthy. All the offseason banter has been surrounding that other Pac-12 team down the road, the one that brought in arguably the top freshman class in the country: UCLA.
"We're fine with that," Fontan said. "We're honestly just concerned with us right now."
Fontan's career was supposed to be over. The kid who has logged just one full season in college hoops, as a freshman at Fordham, tore his ACL during a foreign trip to Brazil last summer and has to watch as injuries tore through the rest of the program one-by-one until Kevin O'Neil was left with just five scholarship players.
But Fontan is able to look at the injury as a blessing. He's as confident of his abilities as just about any point guard in the country, but he also understands that his presence alone wouldn't have turned the Trojans into an NCAA tournament team.
But this year, with the addition of guys like Terrell, Stewart, Wise and Woolridge -- and the return of Fontan, Fuller and talented big man Dewayne Dedmon -- there is a realistic chance to go dancing. Fontan was cleared by doctors on Aug. 10, but his first full practice came last week after the trainers also gave him the green light.
"Physically, I'm better than I was before," he said. "I've never focused so much on my body. I've always been a hard worker, but it's different. I've never worked on my body like that. It was a huge wakeup call."
A year ago, O'Neill made no secret that his best player was Fontan. Now it's not quite so easy to pick out one guy. The staff has been raving about Terrell, who spend last season out in the middle of nowhere (alright, it was Peninsula College in Washington). Regarded as a volume shooter coming out of high school, Terrell appears to have matured, has owned up to past transgressions and has also expanded his game in order to become a multi-dimensional scorer -- and player.
"I'm not glad it happened," Terrell said of the mistake that got him tossed from Wake. "But I'm glad it happened, because I learned a huge lesson. I've matured though it and become a man."
"He has no much natural talent and can play at the highest level," Fontan said. "Not too many guys have his one-on-one skill."
There's obviously a sense of urgency at the Galen Center this season with plenty of seniors on the roster and also guys like Terrell and Stewart trying to prove themselves. While these guys may not have received much pub over the offseason, this is clearly a team to watch -- especially with one of the most underrated perimeter players in the nation.
"A lot of people don't get a second chance," Terrell said. "And we're grateful."