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USC basketball: Trojans know they have something to play for heading into final regular-season games

March 3, 2011 | 11:23 am

A year ago, at about this time, USC headed to Arizona knowing its season would end there.

The Trojans would play two games, the first against Arizona State, the second against Arizona, and after the final buzzer sounded against the Wildcats on March 7, 2010, which was ultimately delayed by two overtimes in an 86-84 USC loss, that would be that.

There would be no conference tournament, no chance at a postseason tournament bid. Nothing.

This realization was the result of USC officials imposing a postseason ban, among other sanctions, on the team in an effort to stave off harsher NCAA penalties stemming from allegations of scandal surrounding former USC Coach Tim Floyd and former star O.J. Mayo.

“It’s unfortunate for that group because they could’ve done something in the conference tournament or the NIT [National Invitation Tournament] or whatever,” USC Coach Kevin O’Neill said this week.

But as USC headed to Washington this week to face Washington State and Washington, the Trojans (17-12, 9-7 in Pacific 10 Conference play) knew they had something to play for, that there would still be basketball left to play when they returned home.

“This year it’s a lot more fun because we have a chance to play afterwards, and we’re in a good position to play in the tournament later,” junior forward Nikola Vucevic said.

Junior guard Jio Fontan, a transfer from Fordham, wasn’t eligible to play last season and sat out in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.

But he still remembers how things were, how the players knew their season had an expiration date.

And Fontan said the team looks noticeably different now, in practices and in games.

“We’re bringing it a lot harder and we haven’t given up the idea of playing in March Madness,” he said. “We’ve still got a chance if we keep surviving.”

As I reported in Friday's editions of The Times, the Trojans have an interesting resume filled with strong wins and good losses that makes it hard to gauge whether they're a serious contender to be on the bubble for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. 

"They're back in the conversation," said Seth Davis, a national college basketball reporter for Sports Illustrated and CBS. "That alone is impressive."

USC's four wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index as formulated by independent expert Jerry Palm are more than any Pac-10 team and more than most "bubble" teams nationwide.

Those wins are against Arizona (RPI 17), UCLA (35), Tennessee (34) and Texas (14.) However, USC plays in a conference ranked seventh in Rating Percentage Index, just ahead of Conference USA and the Atlantic 10.

It helps that the Trojans' strength of schedule, boosted by strong nonconference games, is ranked 52nd nationally, and that USC is 3-1 against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25.

But the Trojans' bad losses may do them in when the NCAA selection committee considers their resume. USC has six losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 in RPI, three to teams ranked outside the top 200.

"They have no realistic hope as an at-large team," Palm wrote in an e-mail. "Way too many very bad losses."

Davis said the teams USC will compete against for an at-large bid won't have as many bad losses, but that if USC can sweep this week and reach the Pac-10 tournament final, "I think they have a good shot."

-- Baxter Holmes

Photo: USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, right,speaks with Donte Smith, far left, Jio Fontan, left, and Maurice Jones during a game on Dec. 23. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times