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Where USC stands entering Pac-10 play

12/24/2010

Thirteen games.

Eight wins, five losses.

It wasn't a bad preseason for USC -- but it wasn't a particularly good one, either.

The highlights were there, in the form of a 17-point win over No. 19 Texas and road win at No. 18 Tennessee. The lowlights, too -- three come-from-ahead losses (Bradley, Nebraska and Kansas), one bad loss to Texas Christian and one downright horrible loss to Rider.

But that's over and done with. On the slate now is the 18-game Pac-10 schedule, which begins Wednesday against conference favorite Washington at the Galen Center. After that, the Trojans will host Washington State on New Year's Eve, then take eight days off before hosting UCLA on Jan. 9.

It's a fairly light stretch, to be sure. But, interestingly enough, all three of those teams were voted to finish ahead of the Trojans in the annual Pac-10 pre-season media poll, and those three games could very well end up setting the tone for USC's conference season.

We mentioned there are 18 Pac-10 games. How many of those does Kevin O'Neill's team need to win in order to make a quality case for the NCAA Tournament, assuming the Trojans don't win the conference outright in the Pac-10 tourney?

It won't happen unless they win 11, and they could easily miss out with anything short of 13 Pac-10 wins -- which would give them a 21-10 overall record. Even that could leave them on the border. Nothing's guaranteed if USC were to finish outside the top two in the conference. Last year the Pac-10 only sent 23-10 Cal and 24-9 Washington to the tourney.

It sounds fairly difficult, right? It surely will be. The odds are stacked against USC at this point. But O'Neill says he expects his team to be up there in the Pac-10 rankings come early March.

"What do we want to do?" O'Neill said after Thursday's 76-49 win over Lehigh. "We want to win every single game. Will we win every game?" I doubt it. ... But we are going to play hard. I have a lot of confidence that I didn't have early on.

"Overall, my expectation is that we will compete for the league title."

At this point, I think the projected order of finish for the Pac-10 can be adjusted some based on nonconference play.

Washington State had by far the best preseason. Washington held its own but didn't pick up a signature win. Arizona State seemed to drop down a bit into a third tier of sorts after a weak nonconference performance, which is probably also where USC would be placed by the general consensus.

In the tier between the Washington schools and ASU and USC, I'd say, are Arizona and UCLA. The other four schools don't have much of a chance to make serious noise at this point.

An interesting note: Arizona, UCLA and USC all came within five points of beating Kansas on the road, although Arizona's game was at a neutral site. Contenders for the best non-conference win category were USC (at home against Texas and at Tennessee), UCLA (neutral site against BYU) and Washington State (neutral site against Baylor on Thursday).

USC guard Jio Fontan, the team's de facto leader at this point in the season, was asked after Thursday's game what he expected from conference play.

"To win it, that's probably the biggest thing," he said. "I think we should win it. Like KO said, we want to win every game. The chances of that happening are slim to none, but we definitely want to win it. In order to do that, we just can't lose at home and we've gotta steal a couple away."