USC: Jorge Fontan

'Never a doubt'

March, 13, 2011
3/13/11
8:13
PM PT


"Never a doubt," Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill quipped, a rare straight-faced glance on his face as he walked away from a pack of media finishing up their interviews with him inside USC's Galen Center.

It was about an hour after USC had been officially named as an NCAA Tournament team on CBS' Selection Sunday show, which happened at approximately 3:30 p.m. and sparked what players later described as a mad rush of excitement in the locker room, where they had all gathered to watch the show live.

"Never a doubt."

Then, as he embraced his embattled wife, Roberta, he burst out laughing.

Plenty of doubt.

Early Sunday morning, O'Neill and his assistants were hopeful they'd get an NCAA tournament bid, although none of them admittedly felt anywhere close to confident about it.

Then, during the selection show, three bubble teams during the Trojans were competing with for bids -- Georgia, Clemson and UAB -- all got in on the first two segments of the bracket. Things looked dire for USC, with only one possible play-in game left unannounced as the CBS folks headed to the Southwest bracket.

But the Trojans got in anyway, got matched up in the brand-new 'First Four' arrangement with a Virginia Commonwealth team that lost in its conference championship, got a possible first-round matchup with a sixth-seeded Georgetown team that looks pretty beatable.

And they're more than pleased about it.

“At first they were picking some teams that were on the bubble and thought we weren’t gonna make it. Then I saw some teams that had the same record as we do that got in, and I was pretty positive that we were going to make it," junior forward Nikola Vucevic said. "Once I saw our name on the screen, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. Everybody started running, everybody started jumping.

"Everybody was happy. It’s a great feeling."

Said junior guard Jio Fontan: "It was crazy, it was wild. You felt the positive energy, you felt everybody's excitement. It was something I'll always remember for the rest of my life."

The video from the locker room is available on USC's official site. Walk-on guard James Dunleavy is the first to realize USC's been selected, jumping up about a quarter-second earlier than everybody else. Vucevic is right behind him in the celebrations. You can see junior guard Jio Fontan and his father, Jorge, embrace just after the announcement, and senior forward Alex Stepheson tackle Dunleavy into the couch before celebrating some more.

You see -- and hear -- assistant coach Dieter Horton, too, probably the loudest of anybody in the room.

You don't see O'Neill. He was behind it all, taking in the experience as he sat back and thought about the last few days, some of the most eventful of his career.

"When the announcement was made, all I did was stand and watch their reaction, which was unbelievable," O'Neill said. "Our team was obviously extremely fired up and it was great to just stand there and watch the whole thing happen. I'm incredibly happy for these guys."

Things were quiet for the first two and a half bracket reveals, as the players sat silently and watched the selection show. After their announcement, though, they couldn't sit still. Fontan joked that he didn't know a single team who was announced after them because nobody was paying attention to the TV.

Soon, talk turned to the actual game USC (19-14) has on its hands Wednesday with a 6 p.m. matchup against Virginia Commonwealth in Dayton, Ohio. VCU (23-11) is an interesting matchup for the Trojans, a fast-paced, deep team who could cause some serious fits for O'Neill in game-planning sessions this week.

It's also interesting in that the Trojans, assuming they do indeed get to the next round and face sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday, would have some serious momentum under their belts in the round of 64.

"I think it's a blessing that we get to get that early game," Fontan said Sunday. "I think for the most part, though, we're just happy to be here and we could really care less about how many games it'll take to do whatever.

"Right now all we know that we have guaranteed is one game, so if we don't win that game there's no reason to answer any questions about the second or third games."

Fontan, not a captain but the team's de facto leader, is right in that sense, but playing in a play-in game -- as collective guinea pigs, no less -- means not looking ahead to the next opponent is even harder than usual.

Either VCU or USC will play Georgetown on Friday in Chicago at about 7 p.m. PST, and either team will have a pretty good shot a 11-6 upset that experts love to annually predict.

As for now, well, as O'Neill said Sunday: "Whoever got the field expanded to 68, we thank them very much, obviously."

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