USC basketball: More on Maurice Jones and his resurgence
It began as a small move for a small player, but it paid off for USC in a very big way.
Freshman guard Maurice Jones, the 5-foot-7, 155-pound Michigan native sometimes called "MoJo," had started 25 games until Thursday against California.
In that game, he came off the bench. Senior guard Donte Smith started in his place.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill changed the lineup in an effort to give USC an offensive boost at the start of a game, against California and again Saturday against Stanford.
It seemed to work. USC led at halftime in each of those games, by 11 against California and nine against Stanford.
But a key reason the Trojans won those games is because of Jones' offensive outbursts, which were surprising because he had been shooting 26% (seven for 27) from the field in USC's four previous games.
Against California, Jones scored 22 points, all in the second half, including 13 in a row at one point. (For perspective, that's the second-most points Jones had scored since the second game of the season, against Santa Clara on Nov. 15, when he had 29.)
USC beat California, 78-75, and O'Neill later said Jones, who made seven of 13 shots including five of six from three-point range, "single-handedly held off their comeback and gave us a chance to win."
Against Stanford, Jones scored 10 more, and though he didn't shoot well, he gave USC enough of an offensive boost that the game turned into a blowout (final score: 69-53, USC) with four Trojans in double figures.
How does O'Neill explain Jones' improved play off the bench versus when he was starting?
"If you ease the pressure on them a bit, maybe it works out better for them," O'Neill said Tuesday. "And Mo had kind of hit a wall, a little bit. Usually if you had 10 or 11 guys, you would bench guys for bad performances. Mo didn’t get benched for bad performances. ... I just thought we had to make some sort of move. And there aren’t a lot of moves out there to make."
O'Neill was referring to his seven-man rotation. But since USC is dealing with a slim roster, it had to deal with Jones and any of Jones' struggles.
But that subtle move, as O'Neill said, seemed to be what Jones needed.
"I thought he handled it great," O'Neill said Monday. "No pouting. If anything, it helped him realize he didn’t have to pace himself. We cut his minutes a little bit, which I think was necessary. I think it helped him. I thought he played really, really well all weekend. And he was as good defensively as he was offensively."
Jones didn't have much to say about the move.
"Nothing really different," Jones said. "I just started the game on the bench. Still played a lot. I took more shots and they went in.... It wasn't nothing out of the ordinary."
Smith had a lot more to say, though.
"I feel like we got off to better starts these two games I started," Smith said. "We got off to way better starts. Those were probably the best two starts that we got off to all year long. I mean, we won two games on the road and we hadn’t done that all year."
True enough, which is an interesting point because Smith wasn't a huge factor in either game.
Against California, Smith scored just four points on two-of-four shooting. Smith later said California's defense focused on him, opening things up for Jones, which is a fair point.
Against Stanford, Smith did play better, scoring 13 points, hitting five of three from beyond the arc.
Jones and Smith said they're both fine with the move, as long as the team wins.
Since the team did, O'Neill said he'll stick with the move too.