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Nikola Vucevic unable to get going

3/17/2011
Nikola Vucevic had 11 points and 14 rebounds vs. VCU, but the Rams kept him from feeling comfortable on the court. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

DAYTON, Ohio -- It had been the case all postseason, or for all two games of it, at least, in the Pac-10 tournament: USC just wasn't been able to establish Nikola Vucevic in the post.

The Trojans couldn't do it Wednesday, either, in a 59-46 loss to Virginia Commonwealth in a First Four game of the NCAA tournament.

Sure, Vucevic finished with a respectable 11-point, 14-rebound line, but he wasn't nearly as big a part of the USC offense as the team had been envisioning. He shot the ball only five times from the field and rarely even had it in his hands throughout the game.

VCU did a superb job of limiting his touches with a variety of different tactics. The Rams did so many things, from bringing an extra defender to his side of the block as soon as the pass to Vucevic was released from a teammate's hand to keeping a guard sitting "in his lap," as they called it, when USC tried to create space for him with a swing.

When Vucevic got the ball, the Rams forced him to make a quick decision -- which he didn't do all that badly when he got the opportunity. He just didn't get the ball enough.

"They did a good job on defense," Vucevic said. "They took me out of the game.

"They had a guy on me the whole time and they didn't let me get in my comfort zone and try to make plays. And they just did a great job of getting me out of the game. It was tough for me to get in a rhythm on offense, and you gotta give them credit for that."

It was probably the reason VCU won Wednesday's game. The Rams, quite simply, took away the biggest advantage the Trojans had on them -- size inside. They left Alex Stepheson open plenty of times down low, but Stepheson is nowhere near the caliber of offensive creator Vucevic is.

"I've said this all year long," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said afterward. "We have a very small margin of error. If we don't play to the best of our abilities and we can't establish Nik on the inside, we have trouble winning.

"I mean, that's just the way it is."

As for the possibility that Vucevic will leave for the NBA after this season, he was made available for only two questions by USC and NCAA officials after the game, but O'Neill did respond favorably when asked what his response would be to Vucevic if he did decide to depart for the pro ranks following this season.

“If it’s his last game, I’ll wish him all the best and thank him for all his efforts," O'Neill said postgame. "His courage, how hard he’s played, he’s been absolutely awesome. Whether it is [his last game] or not, I don’t think we’ll know for quite some time."

“But that’s a decision he and his parents will make, and whatever decision he makes I will support 100 percent because he’s done nothing but great things for us, for the two years I’ve coached him.”

Vucevic has said in the past he'll wait a few weeks and hunker down with his parents and O'Neill to make the decision. The early-entry deadline for the NBA draft is April 24. Players have until June 13 to withdraw from consideration if they do not hire an agent.