USC basketball: Trojans' 'MoJo' returns against Arizona State, USC hopes it stays
There's not much to USC freshman point guard Maurice Jones.
Just about 65 inches and 155 pounds of soft-spoken, Michigan-tough, speed, quickness and uncanny basketball skill.
But what little there is has not only hit a freshman wall this season, it has begun to wear down under the heavy playing time -- a Pacific 10 Conference high 36.8 minutes a game -- bestowed by USC Coach Kevin O'Neill.
The stats are misleading, as Jones had scored in double digits in three of USC's last four games entering Thursday's game at Arizona State, but USC had lost each of them.
"For us to win, he's got to be more aggressive and do more things," O'Neill said.
In other words, "Mo," as he's known, is USC's "MoJo," and as he goes, so goes USC.
Leading up to the Arizona State game, O'Neill pleaded with Jones nearly three times a day at practice, and met with him twice in his office. He asked if Jones wanted fewer minutes. Jones said no. He asked why he wasn't being more aggressive. Jones gave his answer, which is simple.
"In high school, I had to score, I had to make plays for us to win," Jones said earlier this week. "Here, I don’t have to do as much, so I feel like if I don’t have to do it, I just don’t do it.
"[O'Neill] wants me to do more, so I just have to incorporate that into the flow of the game."
One factor Jones said had often slowed him down is that when he brings the ball up court, he has to slow down for USC's 6-foot-10 forwards, Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic, who are each focal points in the Trojans' offense.
Against Arizona State, Jones made the adjustment, scored 14 points, had six assists, six steals and only one turnover in 39 minutes in USC's 63-61 win, which O'Neill called Jones' "best game of the year, all around, offensively and defensively."
But there's a caveat to Jones' great game against the Sun Devils.
He did much of it with junior guard and backcourt teammate Jio Fontan on the bench.
Fontan was saddled by foul trouble and played just 13 minutes, failing to score, missing his only shot and two free throws.
"I was being a little too aggressive, just trying to body up too much, and the refs didn't like that, I guess," Fontan said.
"It was tough," Fontan added. "I haven’t played that amount of minutes since I was in fourth grade. It’s been a long time since I sat on the bench that much."
With Fontan out, it seemed like USC was destined for doom against Arizona State, which was playing a zone defense, which USC has struggled against all season.
(To be fair, Arizona State plays a match-up zone defense rather than a 2-3 or a 1-3-1 zone, meaning it's more like a man-to-man defense than a traditional zone in which players guard territories rather than certain players.)
Still, Jones didn't let that happen.
"My whole mindset was to be more aggressive," he said.
And O'Neill was glad Jones chose the Arizona State game to reassert himself, considering the circumstances.
"We would have been in terrible shape had Mo not stepped up his game," O'Neill said. "That's part of Mo's maturing process. Mo took over the game in a lot of ways. He played really well."
Perhaps one reason Jones played so well without Fontan is that he had to do that for the first 10 games of the season, when Fontan, a transfer from Fordham, wasn't yet eligible to join the team.
At least that's what Jones thought when Fontan was out for much of the game against Arizona State.
"I've just got to handle the ball," he said, "kind of like when we first started playing and Jio wasn't playing."
Though Fontan's early absence mostly hurt USC, O'Neill agreed it helped in this instance.
"It helped that Mo got comfortable early in the year without Jio so when Jio's not in there, he still has a comfort level that he can still play the game and do stuff like that," O'Neill said.
As O'Neill said, Jones needs to play well for USC to win. Like he did for much of this week, O'Neill again met with Jones before USC's practice Friday at the McKale Center, reminding him of what the team needs Saturday night against Arizona.
"He needs to dominate games from the point," O'Neill said. "I know that sounds ridiculous for a 5-5 guy, but he does."
-- Baxter Holmes, reporting from Tucson
Photo: USC point guard Maurice Jones drives to the basket against Arizona State's Jamelle McMillan on Thursday night. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire