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Waxing Seniority: They’re Gone

I’ll miss them. You will, too. And with the wrap of this season, reality has sunk in that some of our favorites will move on. Cue the Vitamin C, it’s graduation time.

And this crop of seniors saw some stuff. They endured but did not define one of the worst stretches in Pac-12 hoops there’s ever been. By way of historical context I have none. But anecdotally can you tell me I’m wrong? These seniors saw the winner of their conference not play in the NCAA tournament. The Pac-12 was bad.

But they won’t be defined by this period of ineptitude. They’ll be defined by the fight we saw and the resilience we cheered. As a slew of fantastic writers boasted of their favorite seniors’ careers (all below), I was reminded that we’re not always fans for the wins and losses. We’re drawn to the human components of this game, the universal truths that we all struggle in an effort to succeed. Which is why it was so rewarding to see EJ Singler in his first Big Dance. And Solomon Hill lead down the home stretch. And see Brock Motum score 79 points in his final three games. And see the career transformation of Larry Drew II. And Joe Burton play the role of cultural ambassador.

Maybe they didn’t win any titles and reached just a single Elite 8 collectively, but they were the seniors of our teams and sometimes that’s about all we need to be a fan.

The 2012-13 Pac-12 Seniors – or at least those who were so kindly discussed by those who follow them closest for the Waxing Seniority series:

Waxing Seniority: Jio Fontan

With the regular season now wrapped and the Pac-12’s seniors having played their final home games, we’re taking a tour across the conference and bidding this group of seniors farewell.

Jacob Freedman is a writer for the Daily Trojan, Galen Central, Neon Tommy, and other USC publications.

There won’t be a Hollywood ending for Jio Fontan. His college career will not wrap up with a celebration on the court. He won’t be hearing his name called by David Stern at the NBA Draft this June.

Instead, his final game at the Galen Center has served as a metaphor for Fontan’s three years as the Trojans point guard on the floor, and emotional leader off of it.

Senior Day couldn’t have started better for the Trojans that Saturday. The Trojans raced out to a 28-9 lead last Saturday against the Arizona State Sun Devils, with Fontan leading USC’s fast-paced, dunk-fueled offense. It was an exciting start, just as Fontan’s tenure at USC was after he led Trojans to the NCAA Tournament in his debut season at USC despite missing the first ten games due to transfer rules.

The Trojans lost in the opening round of the tourney to VCU (which ended up making a run to the Final Four), but Fontan had rekindled his love for basketball in the southern California sun. The ugly drama was finally gone. His nightmare at Fordham, which refused to release Fontan from the program after he averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 assists as a freshman and where he played five games in 2009-10 as a sophomore, was finally over.

From a narrow loss at third-ranked Kansas in his USC debut to a late February win over a Top Ten Arizona squad that propelled the Trojans to an at-large bid, that 2010-11 season was the unconventional honeymoon for Fontan and his new group.

Flash back to Senior Day. Arizona State fought back, but USC still led 41-28 with around 13 minutes to go. Fontan had been guarding ASU’s best player in Jahii Carson, and had already racked up four fouls against the aggressive freshman point guard. Fontan had also sat out nearly eight minutes in the first half with two fouls, and was struggling offensively with seven points and just two assists. But like it had been all season; there was no other option at point guard. Fontan led the team with 33 minutes per game. Down the stretch, it was going to be Jio or bust.

“He’s very competitive at practice and in the games,” USC interim head coach Bob Cantu said. “Guys feed off that and see he really wants to win. Not just winning the game, but winning each possession and each increment on the game.”

Coming out of a dead-ball substitution, Fontan looked to shoot before dishing the ball to Omar Oraby. Oraby’s jumper went awry, but that’s not wat mattered. As the shot clanked off iron, the predominant sound in the Galen Center was a sharp thud as Fontan fell backwards onto the court following his pass. Not good. Not good at all

Fontan got up hobbling, clutching his right wrist tightly and seething to avoid crying out in pain. He got the ball on USC’s next possession, but bent over in agony before Cantu called a timeout and subbed in freshman Chass Bryan for Fontan. No question about it, Fontan was hurt. Again.

Flash back to spring 2011. The Trojans lost three program contributors- Marcus Simmons, Donte Smith and Alex Stepheson- to graduation and lost arguably their best player, Nikola Vucevic, to the pros after the Serbian star declared for the NBA Draft on March 25. Backup guard Bryce Jones had also left the program in January.

With all of that, a repeat run to the tourney was less than a sure thing. But at least then-USC head coach Kevin O’Neill had his trusted point guard at his side. Both coach and point guard believed they could carry this team back to the Big Dance. And then, Brazil.

Fontan had 57 points in two games during USC’s August trip to the South American nation, where the Trojans played against mid-level Brazilian pro squads. But in the third, Fontan was hit on a drive and landed awkwardly. It turned out to be a torn ACL that required surgery. His season was done before it even began. As was USC’s, which Fontan would have to watch unfold from the bench.

Thus began the 2011-12 season as we remember it. Most choose to forget. Fontan’s injury wasn’t the first (Power forward Curtis Washington was declared out of the year the week before Brazil with a shoulder injury), nor would it be the last. Down went center Dewayne Dedmon, down went forward Aaron Fuller, and down went the Trojans’ record. USC finished the season with six wins and 26 losses, the most losses in program history.

The losing was hard enough for Fontan. Worse was having to watch his teammates lose their passion and suffer through loss after loss.

“Just keep fighting,” Fontan said on what he told his teammates. “When you’re going from town to town, state to state, taking losses and some pretty bad ones, you could kind of get lost in what’s the game’s about.” A calm and calculated speaker, Fontan switches the tone from sullen to positive without missing a beat. “It’s about having fun and going out there and trying to make your mark every time you step on the court and compete as much as possible. You don’t want that losing mentality to become the norm for you.”

The season to forget ended with a 17-point loss to UCLA in the first round of the conference tournament. For most of the team, that meant the offseason. For Fontan, it meant the preseason had begun.

“He stayed motivated and saw the big picture, and that’s not easy to do,” Cantu said. “I give him a lot of credit.”

Now 31 games into his final season, Fontan still doesn’t discount the impact of that agonizing tear nearly 19 months ago.

“I have my days where I’m more sore than others, but for the most part I’m good. There’s days where I can feel great and can explode like I’ve always been able to, I just have to learn to adjust and come in strong.”

Now check back in to last Saturday. After subbing out, Fontan has made a quick detour to the locker room before returning with a bag of ice for his right wrist. It turns out he sprained it, but he doesn’t know that yet. Not that it would matter if he did. Four minutes and 33 seconds of game time after hobbling off, Fontan has his right hand wrapped and ready to go.  The Trojans are 6-5 under Cantu at this juncture, and Fontan isn’t letting a sixth loss slide by.

“It’s been tougher for me personally, just dealing with having a year off basketball having to not only be a leader, but getting things flowing for my team to win,” Fontan said before the game. “Luckily I’ve been able to do so during this later stretch.”

Fontan’s senior year has already been rocky. After starting 7-10, USC fired O’Neill, and impacting Fontan on more than one level.

With Fontan living almost 3,000 miles away from his family in New Jersey, O’Neill became Jio’s west-coast father figure. Fontan was just 20 when he arrived to USC. Now he is 23, and thanks to O’Neill’s tutelage, miles more mature and now able to tackle the challenges of life after college basketball.

“He told me to be a professional and have fun on and off the court,” Fontan said about O’Neill’s parting advice to him. Fontan’s one constant of his USC career was gone, and Cantu became Fontan’s fourth coach of his college career.

And just like his roller-coaster senior year, this game would not have the picturesque finish Fontan might have wished for.

Although he left because of injury, Fontan had exited the game with four fouls. Less than two minutes after coming back in, he earned his fifth after elbowing Carson while dribbling the ball up the court. Fontan was protecting his injured wrist, but a swing was a swing. The referees called it a flagrant foul, and Fontan’s day was finished.

Fontan defended himself in the post-game press conference, but his ultimate conclusion was that the referees “made the right call”. The hothead freshman Jio might have rued the call, but this tenured senior knows when to pick his battles.

Like the end of the game once he fouled out, Fontan can’t control how this season will turn out. If J.T. Terrell isn’t finding his shot, if Eric Wise isn’t making paths in the paint and if Dedmon and Omar Oraby aren’t stopping opponents in the post, then there is only so much Fontan can do. For the fierce leader to win, he must rely on the skills of others.

As Fontan gazed from the sidelines, the Trojans withstood a last-second heave by Arizona State to win 57-56. Fontan finished with seven points, two rebounds, and an assist. In his 32nd and final game at the Galen Center, Fontan’s 22 minutes were his fewest total ever on the Trojans’ home court.  In a career deterred by injuries, that final stat seems to make harmonic sense.

No matter. The Trojans won. The metaphor ends here. Now, it’s time for Fontan to wrap up his story at USC. He’s already planning the next chapter of his life.

Fontan has Puerto Rican roots, and was drafted 8th overall by Atléticos de San Germán in January’s Puerto Rican Basketball League Draft. He is on track to graduate, and says he’s likely to explore playing in Puerto Rico once USC’s season is over.

Which is not quite yet. The Trojans enter the Pac-12 tournament as the seven-seed and will face tenth-seeded Utah Wednesday night.

Fontan is still dealing with pain from his wrist, but there’s no chance he won’t be on the court for the rest of USC’s games. His time in Tinseltown is over, but perhaps what happens in Vegas will result in an extra page or two to Fontan’s USC chapter.