Life can sometimes feel like a constant struggle to stay the course. For redshirt junior forward Aaron Fuller, this idea held true. Coming out of high school, he knew he wanted to play college basketball, and he knew he could do it at a high level. All he needed was the chance. So when the University of Iowa was the only school from a major conference to recruit him, he decided to play there.
But after two stellar seasons, Iowa’s coach Todd Lickliter was fired, leaving Fuller in a state of uncertainty. He decided it was time for a change. At the conclusion of his sophomore year, Fuller decided to transfer to USC. After all, the decision seemed fairly straightforward: The Trojans were coming off their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, and the campus was far closer to his hometown of Mesa, Ariz. than Iowa City.
“I really wanted to keep playing basketball at a high level at a big conference,” Fuller said. “I wanted to be closer to home. I have a lot of family out here. USC is a great university and I just wanted to be a part of the tradition.”
After sitting out the 2010-2011 season because of NCAA rules, Fuller started the season right back on track. Through his first six games, Fuller became a team leader with an average of 15.2 points and 6 rebounds per game.
But after what seemed to be the beginning of another strong season, Fuller was again derailed by unforeseen adversity.
“The [shoulder] injury started since the beginning of the season,” Fuller said. “I was kind of just grinding through most of the season and then just hit a point where I wasn’t able to really help my teammates out.
“Over time, it just got worse and worse.”
As the season progressed, Fuller’s production declined. An already undersized big man at a listed height of six-foot-six, Fuller found it far more difficult to play against bigger opponents at less than full strength.
“It’s physical in the paint, so I wasn’t able to use my full strength and go up and get rebounds. It really did affect my play.”
The Trojans began the season already without their starting point guard in senior Jio Fontan, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the summer, and sophomore forward Curtis Washington, who also suffered a torn labrum. Already depleted, the team began the year with an all-hands-on-deck mentality that stretched what little depth the roster had to begin with. In the end, though, the strain on Fuller’s shoulder was too much to bear.
“We decided to have the surgery right now so I could start the rehab process as soon as possible and get ready for summer workouts.”
With the losses beginning to pile up for USC (6-16, 1-8 Pac-12), the last thing the team needs is to lose its leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. And with only six active players averaging more than 15 minutes per game, USC coach Kevin O’Neill is going to have to scramble to find a player (or players) to fill the void left by Fuller in the front court.
Early candidates who figure to see more playing time are sophomore forward Garrett Jackson and junior center James Blasczyk, who average 16.2 and 15.6 minutes per game, respectively.
As far as Fuller’s future is concerned, he remains optimistic. He and the Trojans have reason to be: Despite having only one recruit signed on for next year, the team has plenty of newcomers projected to play next season. In addition to the expected return of injured players Fontan, Washington, and, of course, Fuller, transfer players Ari Stewart, a junior forward from Wake Forest, and Eric Wise, a senior forward from UC Irvine, are each expected to contribute right away next season.
Stewart averaged 8.5 points per game last season for the Deamon Deacons, and Wise finished his three seasons at UC Irvine ranked 11th in school history in scoring and 15th in rebounds. Those are the kind of numbers the Trojans will hope for next year, but are desperately in need of for the remainder of this season.
For now, O’Neill will have to settle for watching two of his most talented players only on the practice floor. Fuller, who went through the same situation a year ago, offers the two transfers advice on how to cope with not playing in games.
“I just tell them to keep working hard every day. Sitting out was tough, not being able to help your teammates. But just keep focusing on next year, because before you know it, you’re going to be playing.”
And with a successful surgery and recovery, Fuller will be joining them, right back on track.