USC: Marcus Simmons

Basketball: 2011-2012 season preview

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
7:21
PM PT
Let’s get this out of the way, first off: 22-year-old USC forward Dewayne Dedmon is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Not necessarily better than anything you’ve ever seen, just different – significantly different.

He’s 7 feet tall, having grown four full inches between ages 18 and 21. He’s 255 pounds, having also gained upwards of 50 pounds in that same span.

And now for the weird but true, in progressive order: He’s the second-fastest player on the USC basketball team, coming in behind only 5-6 point guard Maurice Jones. He can play point guard in a pinch, Trojans coach Kevin O’Neill says. And, maybe the craziest statistic of them all: Counting exhibitions and summer league games and everything with an official and a game clock, he’s played in fewer than 100 organized basketball games in his life.

Truthfully, the last four years of Dedmon’s life – basketball-wise, at least -- have had to take the place of most kids’ entire adolescence, and probably more. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18 years old, and, even then, he didn’t play much at all until his second year of junior college.

And even then, he broke a bone in his forehead two months into the season and sat out a month. Now, 11 months since he arrived at USC, he’s finally almost fully healthy, having broken a bone in his shooting hand a less than a week into practice this October. He had to wear a gigantic makeshift cast on his right hand to be able to take part in practices until Tuesday of this week, when he had the thing removed once and for all.

He’s not pain-free, but he’s cast-free, and that’s a big step.

“This is how I explain him: He’s 7-foot and he runs like a deer,” says Jio Fontan, the USC basketball team’s captain, likely out for the 2011-2012 season with a torn ACL. “I tell people all the time, if you saw him in jogging pants just walking into the gym and asked him to shoot a jump shot, he’s gonna show you he’s a little different.

“He shoots the ball like a guard, plain and simple. But give him time. Understand that not only has he not played that many years of basketball, but he’s also just coming off sitting a whole year out.

“He’s gonna be special. It’s just gonna take time.”

The thing is, USC doesn’t have any time. Dedmon’s first major college game is Friday at 8 p.m. against Cal State Northridge, the Trojans’ 2011-12 season opener. It’ll be his first real game since February 2010. And O’Neill needs him to be the team’s No. 2 scorer and No. 1 rebounder in order the Trojans to have any real chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament this season.

It’s unlikely, but that’s what everyone said last year at this same time. And USC ended up finishing with 19 wins and sneaking into the First Four of the tourney.

Then the Trojans lost top scorer Nikola Vucevic to the NBA draft, starters Alex Stepheson, Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith to graduation and Fontan to injury. The question now is whether O’Neill can manage his new, similarly patchwork squad to similar heights.

Let’s break it down, splitting it up by backcourt and frontcourt:

(Read full post)

Basketball: Updating Vucevic's status

June, 22, 2011
6/22/11
6:30
PM PT
Could former USC forward Nikola Vucevic sneak into the lottery?

It still sounds a bit crazy to say it, but yes, yes he could -- quite easily, in fact. Vucevic, a three-year contributor for the Trojans, has risen up NBA teams' draft boards over the last month to the point where he's now considered a top-25 lock, a reasonable bet to go in the final few picks of the lottery and even a potential top-10 selection in Thursday's 2011 NBA draft, which begins at 4 p.m. PT on ESPN.

All this, after he started out the pre-draft season projected as no better than a second-rounder potential undrafted free agent in many insiders' eyes.

"I'm not surprised," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said flat-out Wednesday of the progress Vucevic has made in recent weeks. "He was in great shape during the year, had a great junior year and he's worked out really well.

"Now he's gonna be a high pick, hopefully."

Hopefully isn't exactly right. Vucevic is going to be a high pick no matter what -- the only hope involved now is in relation to exactly how high he could go. Rumors floating around in the final pre-draft days Tuesday and Wednesday had teams like Boston and New Jersey possibly trading up to gain a better chance to select him than their current late-first selections.

He has worked out for 12 teams in all, including last-minute visits to Indiana, Portland, New York and Washington over the past few days. Those teams all pick in the 15-to-21 range of the draft, perhaps his most likely landing spot come Thursday. But there's also Houston, who picks 14th and is reportedly enamored with the Montenegro native. And, even more, there are the potential trade-up teams. Vucevic may be the draft's biggest unknown in the top half.

As for his USC roots, O'Neill and Vucevic talk every day, the coach said, with conversations ranging from short catchup calls to longer discussions regarding workouts and strategies when meeting with teams.

A big factor working in Vucevic's advantage this entire time, O'Neill emphasized, has been his agent, Rade Filipovich, and the fact that, because of him, Vucevic was able to dedicate himself fully to preparing himself for workout season instead of waffling back and forth between college life and draft prep.

"You're either in or you're out," O'Neill said. "Nik was in from the get-go, and that showed."

Other things showed, too, including his abnormally low body-fat percentage and abnormally long wingspan. Those figures are big sells for interested NBA teams, as is the fact that he's still only 20 years old with three full seasons of college experience under his belt -- a true rarity when it comes to the draft. College juniors are typically considered older prospects in the NBA draft, but Vucevic, junior and all, is only five months older than Texas forward Tristan Thompson, who spent only one season playing college basketball.

He offers the best of both worlds in that sense.

Vucevic did not receive a formal invite to the green room at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for Thursday's draft festivities, but he's going anyway. His father, Borislav, and mother, sister and uncle will all join him. He's not the only prospect scheduled to attend without an invite, but he stands a significant chance of being the highest-selected player to attend as a normal citizen -- another potential storyline in what has been a month chock-full of them for the former Trojan.

***

USC has two other players who have made the rounds across the NBA in pre-draft workouts: forward Alex Stepheson and guard Marcus Simmons, both graduating seniors. Simmons has worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets, am0ng other squads, and Stepheson has auditioned for the Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.

O'Neill has kept in contact with both of them and believes they will at some point find a landing spot to play pro basketball next season, not necessarily in the NBA but somewhere. Stranger things have happened, but they're considered longshots to be selected in the second round of Thursday's draft.

"With both of them, it comes down to: they're not going to be first-round draft picks and may not even be drafted, obviously, but their pro careers may go different routes than a first-round draft pick," O'Neill said. "It might be D-league or overseas or something of that nature.

"Who knows right now?"

Basketball: End-of-year capsules, No. 6

March, 28, 2011
3/28/11
9:52
PM PT
Over a two week period that began last week, we're going over the 10 scholarship basketball players who were on USC's 2010-2011 roster -- one by one, Monday-Friday -- and recap their accomplishments in the now-completed season, no matter how big or how small. We began with redshirt junior forward Aaron Fuller, redshirt sophomore Evan Smith and sophomore Curtis Washington, with the years in reference to what they will be come next season.

We fell behind some last week, so four, five and six have been coming your way Monday, starting with sophomore forward Garrett Jackson and sophomore guard Maurice Jones.

Now we have departed senior guard Marcus Simmons.

Simmons became a full-fledged defensive star in 2010-2011, marking the Trojans' opponents best players on a game-by-game basis and proving consistently able of holding them below their established averages. The Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honor he earned proved that.

For that, he was a big part of USC's success.

His offense still left a lot to be desired, though, as the soft-spoken Simmons finished his USC career with a season average of 5.1 points per game. In his career at USC, Simmons averaged a remarkably low 2.7 shot attempts per game, a great example of his tentativeness on the offensive end.

Still, he did close out the season with some solid performances. He was great offensively against Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament -- his best game as a collegian without a doubt -- and also added seven points in the quarterfinal win over Cal and the first round loss to VCU in the NCAA tournament.

And so, regardless of his offensive inabilities, Simmons will be sorely missed at USC. At one point in the early-going of his sophomore year under Tim Floyd, Simmons was set on transferring, but eventually reconsidered and ended up as the only four-year scholarship player on last year's squad.

Replacing his defensive skills next season will be hard, although incoming recruit Byron Wesley will probably be asked to a lot of the same things Simmons did these past two seasons under coach Kevin O'Neill.

That's it for today. Coming up tomorrow is departed senior guard Donte Smith.

Alex Stepheson to take part in two pre-draft events

March, 28, 2011
3/28/11
2:28
PM PT
USC senior forward Alex Stepheson has been chosen to participate in Friday's annual National Association of Basketball Coaches All-Star Game at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the site of the Final Four.

It's the second such postseason honor for Stepheson, who found out last week he'd also be playing next week's Portsmouth Invitational in Portsmouth, Va. The invitational, which begins next Wednesday and continues through Saturday, is played in front of NBA scouts and team representatives.

Stepheson, who transferred from North Carolina in 2008, averaged 9.8 points and 9.2 rebounds last season for the Trojans, ranking second in the Pac-10 in rebounding, eighth in shooting percentage and ninth in minutes per game.

He is one of three graduating seniors for the Trojans who will pursue careers in professional basketball, including guards Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith.

Fellow frontcourt mate Nikola Vucevic also declared for the NBA draft Friday and signed with an agent but cannot participate in either event because they are exclusive to seniors. Vucevic will make the rounds with private pre-draft workouts with teams in the coming weeks.

Revisiting USC's 59-46 loss to VCU

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
11:32
AM PT
We recapped Wednesday night's game in its many facets last night, including the Trojans' inability to get a big piece of their offense going offensively, a repeat of the team's season-long struggles against the zone and questions over a lack of effort.

We'll have a season-in-review post on the blog Friday looking back on the game and the 34 others USC played this season in a broad scope, looking both to the past and future of USC basketball.

Until then, here are some telling quotes from many of the parties involved in Wednesday's game:

Junior guard Jio Fontan, on the reasons behind the loss: "I don't have a good taste in my mouth, obviously, about this performance, but...I'm glad our team got to bundle up and get here. And just thank the university for the support they gave us, thank our fans for coming out and supporting us, and me, personally, I thank K.O. for this opportunity to play on this team and to lead this team."

Coach Kevin O'Neill, on what adjustments he attempted to make in the second half for offensive rebounding purposes and why they didn't work out: "Our adjustment at halftime wasn't -- I liked where we were at halftime. I liked 22-22. I'm cool with that. So the only thing I told our guys is we needed to keep controlling the tempo, which we didn't do. We tried to speed things up a little bit and it really hurt us, and we needed to make sure we were as good defensively in the second half as were in the first, and we weren't...But, again, that's the game of basketball. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't."

(Read full post)

Trojans talk Kevin O'Neill's suspension

March, 12, 2011
3/12/11
7:40
AM PT
A number of Trojans spoke out following Friday's 67-62 loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament about the suspension of their coach, Kevin O'Neill. Here are some snippets of what the players had to say:

USC point guard Jio Fontan: “It’s not frustrating. KO is a grown man. I’m pretty sure he regrets the decisions he made, and I’m not let down at all. I’ll still ride with KO, regardless of what the situation was, whether he did good or bad.

“It was unfortunate, obviously. We wanted our coach to be there. We wanted our coach to enjoy this experience with us and be there and help lead us to victory, but we understand that things happen. At the end of the day, he’s our coach but he’s a human. He’s a man, and he made a mistake. Whatever the case is – I don’t know too much about it -- we all support him.

“Whether he was right or wrong, I am behind him.”

USC senior guard Marcus Simmons: "There was no anger. We have a great coaching staff behind Kevin O'Neill. So I knew moving forward our coaches would help us out a lot. Coach Cantu did a great job tonight helping us out. So I just wanted to come out there and play. I hope it's not my last game. NIT, NCAA, either or, I mean we'll do great in either tournament."

USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic: "I was disappointed he wasn’t gonna be able to coach us. I was shocked. I didn’t expect that to happen. He’s our head coach, we all love him. It’s disappointing that he wasn’t able to coach us."

"It was different. When KO's there, he yells a lot, and we didn't hear a lot of yelling today. I have to say that our coaching staff did a great job of preparing us. They didn't have a lot of time to get together and do it, but they did a great job. And Coach Cantu did a great job of controlling the game. It was his first time, I think was it it was his first time, and the rest of the guys, the coaches were great. It was tough for them, probably, to do it because they're not used to it. They did a great job preparing us. So it was different, but I think with them we still did a good job."

Basketball: No. 16 Arizona 67, USC 62

March, 11, 2011
3/11/11
11:43
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- It has been a while since USC associate head coach Bob Cantu was the head coach of a basketball team.

Fifteen years, to be exact -- and that was as a JV head coach in his hometown of San Luis Obispo. But when USC head coach Kevin O'Neill was suspended Friday afternoon by Trojans athletic director Pat Haden for his role in an altercation with an opposing booster that took place Thursday night, Cantu took the reins of the squad for which he has served as an assistant coach for the last 10 seasons.

And, going against the class of the Pac-10 in No. 16 Arizona, Cantu's Trojans (19-14) held their own until the final minutes, eventually falling short, 67-62, to the Wildcats in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

“That was unbelievable, in my eyes," said USC guard Jio Fontan, who had seven points and five assists in 28 minutes. "To be honest, I didn’t expect him to do the job he did today. I knew myself, as a leader, I was gonna go out there and try to lead my team -- but Coach Cantu today, that was almost unreal.

"That’s one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever dealt with, throwing a coach into the fire to face a top 15 team just on the fly, two hours before the game."

Cantu said he learned he'd coach the game at 3 p.m., three hours before tip-off. He made plentiful use of his fellow assistants -- Dieter Horton was in charge of substitutions, Tony Miller called out defensive assignments and strength coach Shaun Brown focused on Nikola Vucevic -- but Cantu was the play-caller and the guy in charge of the huddle.

And his players, from Fontan and Vucevic to seniors Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons, praised his performance.

"He didn’t show us any sign of fear, any sign of confusion or anything," Fontan said. "He was ready for the moment. He didn’t try to be KO, he was himself. He was different. He was real confident in himself, and I think that’s what made the team go the way we did today."

(Read full post)

USC-Arizona: Playing for a tournament bid

March, 11, 2011
3/11/11
1:18
PM PT
Here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's 6:10 p.m. game against Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament:

1. Arizona can run. Can USC keep up one day after a game?

Listen to Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill: "Arizona is a very high energy, high level, high intensity team that's extremely well coached. It has one of the best players in the league as their center piece. So we know that if we don't control tempo and let them play at their pace, we'll have problems.
"We're talking about a legitimate top 10 or 12 team that shoots the ball better from three than anybody. You know, we just know we were fortunate the last game to win."

That's not the type of team you'd pick to play for your first back-to-back game this season, but that's who USC's got on the schedule, and the Trojans will attempt to beat the running-and-gunning Wildcats at the Staples Center on Friday to earn a trip to the finals of the Pac-10 tournament.

The two teams split their season series, each squad winning on its home court. Arizona's a team with a number of talented swingmen, which naturally presents quite a few challenges for a short-handed and small USC team, but there is a blueprint to beating this team, which we'll get into later.

USC is focused on bringing up its play another notch, though, from its 70-56 win over Cal Thursday in the Pac-10 quarterfinals.

"Arizona’s a great team," senior forward Alex Stepheson said. "I think we gotta take it up to another level and just try to be aggressive -- that’s the key."


Basketball: USC 70, Cal 56

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
6:32
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- It comes hand in hand with the tournament season every March: the air of desperation.

USC felt that rarefied air all too quickly in the Trojans' Pac-10 opener Thursday at Staples Center, falling behind Cal by eight points about eight minutes into the first half when nothing was falling and defense was suddenly hard to come by. But a set play out of a timeout led to a Donte Smith 3-pointer, and just as suddenly as they fell behind, the Trojans were back in front again, taking an eight-point lead at halftime after a 18-4 run.



It held up in the second half and USC moved on to a semifinal matchup with No. 16 Arizona with a commanding 70-56 win over the Bears.

“We played with a sense of desperation, I thought,” USC coach Kevin O'Neill said afterward. "And nothing’s more desperate than being 10 minutes in and having only three points.

“The one message we always try to send to our guys and they send to each other is that we are going to guard you. I think our guys really took it to them defensively because our mentality was we're desperate here. We've got to do something well, and it became the defensive end for us.”

On a day in which USC star Nikola Vucevic was clearly off his game -- the junior forward had seven points on 10 shot attempts -- it was USC's three guards who made the difference. Donte Smith, Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones combined for 42 points and 10 assists as they collectively sliced and diced their ways through the Bears' big men. Fontan hadn't had much success against Cal in the team's previous two meetings; Smith did in the first game; Jones did in the second.

All three did Thursday, and constant penetration was key.

(Read full post)

USC vs. Cal: Win or go home

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
6:47
AM PT
It's officially tournament time. So, just as we've done for every USC game this season, here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's noon game against Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament:

1. It's win or go home, for both teams. Lose and you're done. What effect will that have?

USC senior guard Marcus Simmons has a clear plan for how he's going to motivate his teammates today, he said earlier this week. A few minutes before tipoff, as they each begin to take the court at the Staples Center, he and forward Nikola Vucevic are going to say a few words about the last Pac-10 tournament USC played in -- in 2009, when the Trojans came out in similar position to this year and swept away the league with a surprise tournament championship.

Simmons and Vucevic know how important mentality is in games like today's, when whichever team loses will throw away any hopes it had of making the NCAA tourney and head home for the summer.

We don't know how many wins USC (18-13) needs to get in the Big Dance, but we know it won't be enough if the Trojans lose today to Cal. A win and they are in business. Cal needs a Pac-10 tournament title to get into the tourney, but, again, that's not an in-accomplishable feat in the Pac-10.

2. Cal has four double-digit scorers. USC has two. Are the Bears deeper?

OK, so that stat's a little misleading. USC has only two double-digit scorers in Vucevic (17.7 points per game) and Jio Fontan (10.5), but the Trojans also have three players right on the cusp of that mark in Alex Stepheson, Donte Smith and Maurice Jones. All three average 9.9 points per game.

But that doesn't change the fact that the Bears are deeper, if not by all that much. Cal coach Mike Montgomery regularly plays nine or 10 players, including stars Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez; USC coach Kevin O'Neill never plays more than seven unless his squad blowing somebody out, and even then he hardly does.

"They score at every spot," O'Neill said of the Bears. "I think Gutierrez has become one of the best guards in the league and one of the best leaders in the league. We’ll have to play a great game to have a chance to win this thing."

O'Neill has to guard against his players naturally attempting to conserve energy in the first half of today's game for the next two days, simply because USC could easily lose this one if the Trojans try to do that.

(Read full post)

Basketball: Tuesday practice report

March, 9, 2011
3/09/11
6:36
AM PT


USC (18-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) plays Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament at the Staples Center Thursday. We'll have a preview of the game Thursday, but here are a few worthwhile nuggets from the Trojans' Tuesday practice in preparation for the Bears -- and whatever else may come after that:

In it to win it

When tournament season approaches in college basketball, emotions tend to be on high and coaches' sleep sessions tend to be on low. Know what else is typically on high?

Cliches. March is, in many ways, cliche season. In USC's case, these Trojans are 'in it to win it' -- so says junior forward Nikola Vucevic.

Yes, the Trojans are happy they get to compete in the Pac-10 Tournament after being banned from competition last year because of sanctions. No, they're not happy just to compete.

"We don’t want to just be in it, and say, ‘Whatever happens, happens,’” Vucevic said Tuesday. “We want to be in it and win and try to go as far as we can.”

Along with Vucevic, senior guard Marcus Simmons is one of two Trojans on this year's team to also play during the 2008-2009 team's tournament run that vaulted them all the way through to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Simmons was short and to the point about the team's plans for the Pac-10 tourney.

"We’ve just gotta go out there and try to win every game," he said Tuesday. "If we lose this game, we’re probably gonna end up in the NIT, so we want to go out there and just prove a point: we belong in the NCAA."

Simmons talks award

Simmons won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors Monday, one of three Trojans to get a significant conference award. Vucevic was named All-Pac-10 First Team and point guard Maurice Jones was named to the All-Freshman Team.

Simmons said Tuesday he found out about his award when he woke up Monday morning. As soon as he looked at his phone, he said, he had 20-plus congratulatory text messages and he received more throughout the day.

Simmons refused to credit himself when asked how he felt about receiving the award, although he did concede that making a name for himself as a defensive player could help him establish his basketball career later on.

"It’s not only me," he said. "It’s my teammates. They help me out a lot, fighting over screens and stunting. We play team defense and I’m just glad I got the award."

As for Kevin O'Neill, the coach spent a good portion of time crusading Simmons' case for the award over the last few weeks, so he was fairly pleased when his fellow coaches voted his way.

"I think he deserved it," O'Neill said Tuesday of Simmons, adding he thought a number of his other players could have also deserved awards, including Jio Fontan and Donte Smith. "Marcus has done an unbelievable job for us defensively."

Cal's big men are big threats

The two Bears forwards -- Harper Kamp and Markuri Sanders-Frison -- have had quite a bit of success against the Trojans this year, putting up a combined average of 35 points per game in the teams' two meeting.

Neither player is particularly physically imposing compared to the Aziz N'Diaye and Derrick Williamses of the world, with Kamp standing a generous 6-8 and Sanders-Frison listed at 6-7, but both are smart when playing in the low block, and both are effective.

“They’re good players," Vucevic said Tuesday. "They’re hard to guard because they’re shorter than us, they have lower bases so they can go under us and stuff. It’s easier for us to guard taller guys because we can block their shots and stuff and we’re the same height."

So Vucevic attributes it to height. O'Neill simply attributes it to to speed. Forward Alex Stepheson? He says they're just good.


"They’re good big men," Stepheson said. "They played well against us. I don’t think me and Nik played particularly well those games and we’re gonna come ready Thursday, but they’re good players."


Simmons' defense honored by Pac-10

March, 7, 2011
3/07/11
2:06
PM PT
USC guard Marcus Simmons has been named the Pac-10's defensive player of the year in a Monday vote of the conference's coaches.

Simmons, a senior, was praised all year by Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill for his defensive capabilities, and he came through on the expectations with big-time performances against the best in the conference, including Washington State's Klay Thompson, Stanford's Jeremy Green, Washington's Isaiah Thomas and UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, holding all four of them well below their season-long shooting percentages in matchups against USC.

USC forward Nikola Vucevic was named to the All-Pac-10 first team after earning most improved player honors a year ago. Arizona's Derrick Williams earned Pac-10 player of the year honors, beating out Vucevic and Thompson.

Other awards: Arizona's Sean Miller was named coach of the year, Washington's Matthew Bryan-Amaning was named most improved player and Cal's Allen Crabbe was named freshman of the year.

USC's Maurice Jones was named to the all-freshman team.

The rest of the awards are available here.

Basketball: USC 62, Washington 60

March, 6, 2011
3/06/11
7:25
PM PT
Jio Fontan and Nikola Vucevic both produced big-time games and USC came away with a closer-than-it-had-to-be two-point win, 62-60, at Washington's Alaska Airlines Arena on Saturday.

Fontan scored 20 points, Vucevic had 19 points and 10 rebounds and senior Alex Stepheson provided a big 11-point, 14-rebound line as the Trojans pulled off the upset, but they almost let the game go away in the final minutes. They led by 14 points with 13 minutes to go in the game and by eight with five minutes to go until Washington had a last-second opportunity to pull it close when USC missed a few free throws.

USC won by not letting any of the Huskies' many scorers get really hot. Sure, Washington had four double-digit scorers, but even leading scorer Isaiah Thomas didn't have his best game as he was clearly disrupted throughout the game by USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons. UW forwards Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, averaging a combined 28 points on the year, had just 11 Saturday.

The win is a big one for USC, giving the Trojans victories against all but one team -- Oregon -- in the Pac-10 this season. The Trojans had lost a similar game to the Huskies at home in December, so it represents a marked improvement for Kevin O'Neill's squad to record the victory, and it correspondingly gives them quite a bit of momentum heading into Thursday's noon game against Cal at the Staples Center in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament.

So USC (18-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) is not in position to garner an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournment -- as I see it, at least -- because the 14 losses the Trojans will have if they don't win the conference tourney are just one or two too many for what would be a 20-win team in the conference. But the road to the conference title isn't insurmountable. USC will face Cal Thursday, and then would likely face Arizona on Friday and either UCLA or Washington on Saturday if they kept up winning.

O'Neill's squad has beaten all three of those teams on the season. USC is definitely not a team suited to do well in back-to-back-to-back play, with only seven rotation players, but it's not all that hard to imagine a scenario where the Trojans take care of business Thursday and pull off two minor-to-medium upsets Friday and Saturday.

Only time will tell. It all starts Thursday.

USC vs. Washington: Playing for a seeding

March, 5, 2011
3/05/11
5:29
PM PT
Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's 7:30 p.m. game against Washington:

1. Is there enough left to play for?


An at-large bid is now officially out of the question for the Trojans (17-13, 9-8) after Thursday night's loss to Washington State, so USC is left playing tonight's game for an opportunity for a better seeding in the Pac-10 tournament next week at Staples Center. We detailed all the different seeding possibilities in an earlierin post, but, to summarize it, the Trojans can assure themselves themselves a No. 4 seeding with a win against the Huskies. They could still finish fourth no matter what they do if Cal and Washington State end up losing, but that's unlikely.

All season long, the stated goal for the Trojans has been to finish at the top of the conference or as close to the top as possible, but, in actuality, they're a middling team in the Pac-10, regardless of what happens tonight.

2. Another big game for Nik Vucevic?


Nikola Vucevic last 10 games have been Player of the Year caliber. He's averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds in his last 10 contests, spanning to late February, and has frequently carried the Trojans during that stretch.

He'll probably have to do that again tonight for USC to have any chance at upsetting the Huskies.

Then again, Vucevic had perhaps the best game of his career against Washington -- 28 points on nine field goal attempts and 14-of-14 free-throw shooting -- in December at the Galen Center, and the Trojans still fell short in a 73-67 overtime loss. Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill memorably said after that game that he was disappointed his team "wasted" a great performance from Vucevic.

(Read full post)

Basketball: Tuesday practice report

March, 1, 2011
3/01/11
11:21
PM PT
USC (17-12, 9-7 in the Pac-10) plays Washington State Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pullman. We'll have a preview of the game Thursday, but here are a few worthwhile nuggets from the Trojans' Tuesday practice in preparation for the Cougars:

Something to play for

At this point last season, heading into the final Pac-10 weekend series of the year on the road, the Trojans were 16-12. This season, heading into the final Pac-10 weekend series on the road, the Trojans are 17-12.

What's the difference this time around?

Well, there's something to play for, of course. Last season, USC self-sanctioned itself from postseason competition, meaning that the final road weekend at Arizona was the Trojans' last of the year, no matter the outcome. Unsurprisingly, with literally nothing to play for besides pride, they lost both those games.

This time, there's plenty up for grabs at Washington State and Washington. If the Trojans win both, they'll probably play themselves right onto the bubble heading into the Pac-10 tournament and give themselves a solid chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney.

Senior guard Marcus Simmons said the situation at hand was "exactly like" the situation two years ago, when USC went into the final weekend with a 16-12 record, swept two home games against the Oregon schools and then won the Pac-10 tournament in a huge surprise, keeping the momentum going all the way through to the second round of the NCAA tourney, where the Trojans lost to eventual NCAA Tournament runner-up Michigan State by five points.

"It means a lot," Simmons said Tuesday of what the availability of postseason play can do for a team. "I told the players the other day: it reminds me of a couple years ago when we started pretty bad and then we picked it up toward the end of the year. And then we had something to play for, the Pac-10 tournament, and then the NCAA.

"It was very, very big for us."

That difference, that something to play for, is evident according to guard Jio Fontan, who couldn't play last year after sitting out after transferring from Fordham but was with the team during practices.

"Practices are different, I feel like," Fontan said after Tuesday's two-hour session. "Not as much by the coaches, but by the players. Our approach to practice is a little bit different. We bring it a little harder, and we haven't given up on our idea of playing in March Madness, so we approach practice like we can still survive so we have to prepare to try and win the next game."

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