USC Scouting Report: Trojans still looking for offensive identity

The Maui Invitational has been full of surprises through two days, and the final day will see Marquette and Southern Cal square off in the fifth-place game this afternoon at 4 p.m. CT (12 p.m. local time).

It’s the first meeting between these two teams, and Marquette will see a familiar face on the opposing sidelines in Kevin O’Neill, who coached the Golden Eagles from 1989-1994. Tony Miller, Marquette’s all-time assist leader, is in his third season as an assistant under O’Neill.

Illinois destroyed the Trojans 94-64 on Monday, but O’Neill’s group rebounded with an ugly 59-53 overtime win over Texas yesterday. Prior to Maui, USC won home contests against Coppin State and Long Beach State.

The Trojans are led by senior captain Jio Fontan, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He averaged 10.5 points and 3.9 as a junior after transferring from Fordham, where he averaged around 15 points and 4.5 assists in two years. Fontan isn’t a great shooter and doesn’t have ideal size, but O’Neill has labeled him as the team’s most valuable player and the engine that makes his team go. Junior Cadougan and Derrick Wilson will have their work cut out, as Fontan has played well thus far in Maui.

Playing alongside in the backcourt is former Wake Forest and junior college transfer J.T. Terrell, the team’s leading scorer through four games (11.8 points). He averaged 24 points per game last year at Peninsula College and is the team’s best outside shooting threat. The 6-foot-3 slasher is getting to the line at a nice rate but is shooting just 14-of-48 from inside the arc.

Both Fontan and Terrell have assumed larger offensive roles after Mo Jones, a 5-foot-7 combo guard, was ruled ineligible in September and transferred. He was the team’s leading scorer (13.0 points) last year.

Jake Thomas hit all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in an 89-62 win over Mississippi State. (Photo by A. Martina Ibanez-Baldor)

The Trojans also have received scoring punch from 6-foot-6 forward Eric Wise, who transferred from UC-Irvine last year. Wise scored 13 points both games in Maui and will be a good test for Jamil Wilson and Juan Anderson.

Byron Wesley, a 6-foot-5 guard, rounds out the backcourt. He made just 1-of-9 3-pointers last year but has already made 3-of-6 in 2012. He’s a solid defender and shoots well from the field, and played 43 minutes against Texas.

The Trojans are big in the middle, with 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby. The two combine to average 34 minutes a game and have blocked a combined 11 shots in four games. Dedmon is more of an offensive threat and both rebound well. Of note, the 7-foot-2 Oraby has made an impressive 7-of-8 free throws this year.

Notables off the bench include 5-foot-9 backup point guard Chass Bryan, wing Aaron Fuller and shooting guard Greg Allen.

Where the Trojans are good

It may be that the Trojans aren’t talented off the bench, but four starters average more than 27 minutes per game. Furthermore, six players average between 7 and 12 points per game. Fontan leads the group, and there’s something to be said for a team relying on its senior point guard and captain (see: James, Dominic). This starting group is experienced, but has struggled playing together as a unit for the first time (Fontan out last year, Wise and Terrell transfers). They’re a talented group looking for rhythm.

O’Neill preaches defense, and the Trojans have played well through four games. Outside of a 94-point onslaught from Illinois, which shot 53 percent and made 13 3-pointers, USC opponents have averaged 56.7 points per game. That includes a 53-point effort from Texas, which, albeit without Myck Kabongo, shot just 35 percent and committed 17 turnovers. With great size inside and pesky defenders, Marquette won’t replicate its 89-point outing against MSU.

Where the Trojans can be beat

Outside of a pushover in Coppin State, which ranks as the 320th best team in the country (think Colgate), USC has struggled mightily to score. In the last three games, the Trojans have failed to score more than 64 points and are shooting a shade over 40 percent from the field. A true scorer has not emerged, and the offense simply looks lost at times. Harassing Fontan will go a long way toward making this marginal offense look even worse.

For as good as the defense has played, outside of the ridiculous performance from the Illini, teams are getting to the free throw line against O’Neill’s group. Dedmon, while a shot-blocking presence, has been limited by foul trouble and Fontan, who can get over-aggressive at times, fouled out of the opener and had four fouls in 25 minutes against Long Beach St. Davante Gardner should be licking his chops in this one.

Three keys to the game

1. Tire starters’ legs

Remember those four starters who play more than 27 minutes per game? A short bench killed Mississippi State yesterday, as Marquette made an effort to get out and run whenever possible, finishing with 16 fast-break points and a whopping 37 off turnovers. If Marquette can dictate the pace early like it did yesterday, USC simply won’t be able to keep up for 40 minutes.

2. Don’t let it get ugly

The Trojans won the ugliest game this author has seen in recent memory yesterday, full of missed shots, late shot clocks and personal fouls. USC starts with its defense, and the only way it will have a chance today is slowing the game, getting Marquette out of rhythm and forcing turnovers. First halves have been a massive struggle for the MU offense, so running offense and finding high-percentage looks will be more important than usual.

3. Bust zone looks

O’Neill used a zone look against Texas for much of the second half and overtime, something Marquette really hasn’t seen for extended periods of time thus far. Jake Thomas and Vander Blue have proved to be zone-busters, but Jamil Wilson and Juan Anderson may add to that. With a pair of 7-footers in the middle, Marquette may have to be efficient on the outside to free up inside looks.

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