The player USC could least afford to lose for an extended period of time will miss the entire season.
Senior guard Jio Fontan, the Trojans' leading returning scorer, will undergo season-ending surgery in the next few days after an MRI on Thursday revealed he sustained a torn ACL in his left knee on Tuesday during an exhibition game in Brazil. Fontan had initially been diagnosed with a sprained knee, though the USC coaching staff appeared to be resigned to the fact that ligament damage was possible, perhaps even likely.
"When you lose your best player, who's also your best leader, who's also your glue guy, it changes your team, especially when you lost four other starters," USC coach Kevin O'Neill told the Orange County Register. "But the outlook for the season should be this: We're trying to win the Pac-12 title. We're trying to get in the NCAA Tournament.
"I can assure you this group of guys, after seeing them three games down here, they're going to play their hearts out every single game. We might not win every game, but no one's going to want to play us."
USC has a history of fighting through adversity under O'Neill, remaining competitive two years ago despite midseason NCAA sanctions and then fighting back from a disastrous start to earn an NCAA tournament berth a year ago. Nonetheless, even an upper division finish in the middling Pac-12 will be a challenge without the services of Fontan.
The 6-foot Fontan had shown signs during the Trojans' Brazil trip that he was ready to emerge as one of the Pac-12's top guards, tallying a combined 57 points in USC's opening two games. Five-foot-7 Maurice Smith will have to become USC's primary backcourt scorer and distributor in Fontan's absence, but the Trojans don't have a single guard besides those two who played in more than six games a year ago.
O'Neill told reporters freshman Alexis Moore is the most likely candidate to replace Fontan in the starting lineup. The 6-foot-2 guard scored three points in his lone appearance on USC's Brazil tour so far.