Unlike most coaches who rest their star players at least two or three minutes per half to avoid fatigue at the end of games, USC's Kevin O'Neill doesn't feel he has enough depth to afford Maurice Jones that luxury.
That's why O'Neill is unapologetic when asked about playing his sophomore point guard an incredible 39.6 minutes per game, more than any other player in the nation.
"Mo's going to have to be our guy," O'Neill said Monday. "He plays 40 minutes a night. He knows it. We all know it. That was our plan going into the year and that's what we're going to continue to do. Unless he's hurt, he's not coming out of the game."
The reason Jones has played 396 out of a possible 410 minutes in USC's first 10 games of the season is because injuries, transfers and NCAA sanctions from the O.J. Mayo scandal have left the Trojans shorthanded. Backcourt depth already would have been limited even before freshman Bryce Jones transferred last January and leading returning scorer Jio Fontan suffered a season-ending knee injury during USC's Brazilian exhibition tour this past August.
Since those two aren't in uniform, Jones is the only non-freshman scholarship guard USC has at its disposal this season. The 5-foot-7 Saginaw, Mich. native is averaging a team highs of 15.1 points, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game, all while typically guarding the opposing team's point guard.
"I couldn't be more pleased with what Mo's done," O'Neill said. "The guy he guards in the games is averaging less than seven points a game and he's always on one of the best players. He's leading us in everything. He had five rebounds the last game. The guy is doing everything humanly possible to help us win."
To keep Jones as fresh as possible, O'Neill will often have him practice on a limited basis or even hold him out altogether on the eve of games. That strategy enabled Jones to play 49 of a possible 5o minutes in a double overtime loss to Nebraska last month and at least 39 minutes in six of USC's other games this season.
O'Neill admits fatigue may play a role in Jones' 37.9 percent shooting, but he points out that Jones at 70 or 80 percent "can do more than any of our freshmen if they were fully rested." It's why O'Neill was dead serious when he warned reporters at Pac-12 Media Day in October that if Jones gets hurt, "Don't come to the games. It will be ugly. Don't show up."
Despite Jones' best early-season efforts, USC has lost by three or less points to Nebraska, San Diego State and New Mexico to fall to 4-6 so far this year. The loss of Fontan, first-round draft pick Nikola Vucevic and fellow starter Alex Stepheson from last year's NCAA tournament team has left the Trojans with an offense so anemic it has failed to surpass 42 points in three games this season.
The good news for USC is help is on the way next season. Fontan plans to return, transfers Ari Stewart (Wake Forest) and Eric Wise (UC Irvine) will be eligible and a recruiting class headlined by former Wake Forest top 50 recruit J.T. Terrell will provide reinforcements.
All that should mean USC's reliance on Jones to do everything will likely be a temporary problem.
Joked O'Neill, "He'll feel like he needs to run a marathon after every game next season."