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USC Basketball: Breaking down the Trojans' NCAA tournament breakdown against VCU

March 17, 2011 |  6:42 am

Neely In so many words, or perhaps so few, USC "just didn't have it" Wednesday night against Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA tournament here.

That was the repeated line by USC Coach Kevin O'Neill after his team's 59-46 loss to the Rams.

He had other answers, including that his team lacked NCAA tournament experience (true), that it strayed from its goal of a slow-down tempo early in the second half when VCU made its 15-5 run (true) and that, overall, it didn't do the little things it needed to do to win, such as take care of the ball, rebound, avoid foul trouble and take high-percentage shots, among other things (also true).

But he also said he wasn't sure exactly what happened and why USC, which had fought quite hard to reach this point after being 13-12 nearly a month ago and after dealing with a postseason ban a season ago, played so poorly or, as he said, "laid an egg" against VCU.

"Maybe the season caught up to us a little bit," he said. "Maybe the pressure. I don't know. I just know I couldn't be more proud of our group of guys."

In truth, there were a few easy-to-see things that went wrong for USC.

And, as always, the numbers don't lie: 

-- USC was out-rebounded on the offensive glass 17 to five, which led to 21 second-chance points for VCU while USC had only eight in that category.

What happened? The Trojans knew that because VCU shoots a high number of three-point shots -- the Rams made nine of 24 Wednesday -- that it would be crucial for the guards to rebound since many three-point misses tend to result in long rebounds. USC's four guards had just five rebounds. 

-- USC had 15 turnovers that led to 19 points off turnovers for VCU, which had nine turnovers that only resulted in eight points off turnovers for USC.

What happened? VCU's pressure man-to-man defense focused more on stopping forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, but it also did a good job of closing down passing lanes on the perimeter and double-teaming USC's guards when they had the ball. And the Trojans' guards, in those situations, made many bad decisions, resulting in nine turnovers among them as compared to four assists. And in that same vein, USC didn't at all take advantage of its size inside. Vucevic had 11 points and 14 rebounds, but it was his most ineffective double-double of the season and he admitted that he was a non-factor. 

-- USC senior guard Donte Smith scored one point, missing all six of his three-point attempts. 

What happened? Smith just missed open shots. He missed two wide-open three-point shots from the corner and took a few others from deep that weren't wide open. You could tell he was forcing it Wednesday night. And in a somewhat ironic moment, the only three-point shot Smith made didn't count. It was one that bounced high off the rim, hit the top of the backboard and rolled back -- meaning it was techinically out of bounds -- before rolling forward, falling, hitting the rim and then going in. 

-- USC shot 10 more free throws than VCU, but missed 10 of them.

What happened? Hard to say, but if we're going to say that the pressure of the moment got to USC, it seemed to happen while the Trojans were standing at the free-throw line. USC missed six of 10 free-throws down the stretch, when it was trying to make a comeback, that were just too costly.

And all these things really, really hurt USC on a night when its defense played pretty well, holding VCU to 33.9% shooting from the field. In fact, it was the first time all season USC lost when holding a team to fewer than 60 points; before Wednesday, USC was 13-0 in that category. 

Sure, it hurt USC that it got in foul trouble late, but the Trojans had been playing just seven players for months, and, as junior guard Jio Fontan said after the game, "It's no excuse to use that we don't have guys coming off the bench. We've been winning with these guys, and they did a great job."

And sure, it hurt USC that it missed eight of its nine three-point shots, but the team doesn't really live by the three anyway. It's more of an inside team and Vucevic and Stepheson were nearly absent there.  

So now USC's 2010-11 season is done. Its 19-15 mark this year goes to the record books and media guides. But when the team boards the plane Thursday to head back to Los Angeles, instead of to Chicago, where it had hoped and, frankly, talked openly about a tad too often these last two days, it will do so with many questions about what went wrong.

The answer for USC fans is that a lot went wrong. In fact, so much went wrong that USC didn't win when its defense plays the way it needs to play. And all of that may come down to being ready. For whatever reason, or reasons, the Trojans just weren't.  

"We had a group of guys that for whatever reasons hadn't been in those situations," O'Neill said, "and as a group we didn't react very well tonight." 


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-- Baxter Holmes in Dayton, Ohio

Photo: USC Coach Kevin O'Neill addresses the media after his team's loss in the first round. Credit: Greg Bartram / U.S. Presswire