March, 22, 2010
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
USC knew it was out of contention for the NCAA tournament since early January, but that doesn't prevent a 'what if?' or two for Trojans fans when watching the NCAA tournament. A key place to look in those situations is the collective tournament resume of teams USC played this season, as the Trojans played nine games against tournament participants and went 6-3. Let's go through them chronologically.
- Texas, December 3 — USC's first road game of the season didn't go so well, with Texas using big runs at the end of both halves to capture a 69-50 win. Forward Nikola Vucevic had a team-high 18 points and a game-high 14 rebounds before fouling out with five minutes left to play. With Mike Gerrity still ineligible, Donte Smith started the game and played 29 minutes at the point guard spot. Texas, ranked No. 2 at the time, got 13 points and seven blocks from Dexter Pittman and 19 points and nine rebounds from Damion James. Of course, the Longhorns memorably collapsed during the Big-12 season, eventually losing ten of their last 17 games — including an overtime loss to ninth-seeded Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tourney.
- Georgia Tech, December 5 — USC coach Kevin O'Neill often referred to this game as the only contest all season in which the Trojans were truly overmatched. The host Yellow Jackets scored the first 19 points of the game before Alex Stepheson finally converted a layup with 13 minutes left in the first half and eventually went on to win, 79-53. All five of Georgia Tech's starters put up double figures in points; USC's Stepheson had a season-high 22 and Vucevic and Marcus Johnson added 12 points each. Georgia Tech earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tourney and upset seventh-seeded Oklahoma State in the first round before falling to Ohio State on Sunday.
- Tennessee, December 19 — In Gerrity's first appearance on the season, USC played a tremendous all-around game and upset the then eighth-ranked Volunteers at the Galen Center, 77-55. Gerrity had 12 points and 10 assists in 39 minutes, consistently circling around a vaunted Volunteer defense. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said afterward that he had little to no film of Gerrity prior to the game. The Trojans held Tennessee's Tyler Smith — since kicked off the team — to just three points and Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze to eight points each. USC's Johnson and Dwight Lewis combined to score 40 points on just 22 shots. The Volunteers are still alive in the NCAA tourney, beating San Diego State and Ohio to set up a Sweet 16 matchup with Ohio State.
- St. Mary's, December 23 — In the second game of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, USC surprised many by holding the Gaels to just 49 points and winning, 60-49. St. Mary's had just 16 made field goals while shooting 30 percent from the field against the Trojans but didn't score fewer than 61 points in another game all season. Leonard Washington made his season debut after being academically ineligible during the first semester. He scored 10 points; Gerrity had 17 and Vucevic added 15 while holding now-infamous Gaels center Omar Samhan to 13 points. St. Mary's is now perhaps the nation's biggest Cinderella after upsetting Richmond and Villanova over the weekend to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16.
- UNLV, December 25 — On a five-game win streak, USC matched up with No. 20 UNLV in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic and handed the Runnin' Rebels just their second loss in 14 games, 67-56. Gerrity was named the tournament MVP after a 13-point performance, and Johnson and Lewis added 19 and 14 points, respectively. Only Oscar Bellfield was in double figures for the Rebels, with 17 points. "This tournament performance was not a fluke," I wrote at the time. "USC displayed defense and sheer athletic ability that will surely keep them in the top half of an admittedly weak Pac-10 conference this year regardless of offensive ups-and-downs." UNLV earned an 8-seed in the tournament after winning its final six games, but the Rebels lost in the first round to eventual Kansas-beater Northern Iowa.
- Cal, January 9 — Following the announcement of self-imposed sanctions that left the Trojans without the possibility of posteason participation, USC held a seven-point lead with 10 minutes to go in Berkeley only to crumble under pressure and fall to the Bears, 67-59. Cal's Jerome Randle scored 21 and Theo Robertson added 20 as the Bears went on a 16-1 run down the stretch to take control of the game. Lewis had 20 points for the Trojans, who suffered their second consecutive loss after falling to Stanford on a free throw on January 7.
- Washington, January 23 — This might have been USC's most complete performance of conference play, as the Trojans dominated the Huskies on both side of the ball and won, 87-61 at the Galen Center. USC had just experienced what O'Neill called a letdown against Washington State, when the Trojans held a 10-point lead at the break only to collapse in the second half and lose to the Cougars by seven, but they rebounded nicely. All five USC starters were in double figures against Washington, with Johnson leading the way with 22. Vucevic added 11 points and 13 rebounds. Washington's Quincy Pondexter had an off-night, shooting 1-of-10 from the field and scoring just two points, while reserve guard Venoy Overton led the Huskies with 18 points.
- Cal, February 4 — USC learned its lesson from its first go-around with the Bears and used a remarkable 25-0 run to beat Cal at home, 66-63. Stepheson sparked the incredible sequence for the Trojans with a dynamic block of a Randle layup near the end of the first half, and Johnson added to the fire when he blocked the shot of 7-foot-3 Max Zhang. Randle had 29 points for the Bears, but the Trojans got at least six points from seven different players to overpower Cal. Vucevic had 10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, and Lewis added 13 points. Eighth-seeded Cal went on to beat Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tourney after earning the Pac-10's only at-large bid, but the Bears lost by 15 to Duke on Sunday in the second round to end their season.
- Washington, February 18 — In the Trojans' first true road victory of the season, USC topped the Huskies in Seattle, 67-64. Lewis led all scorers with 22 points as the Trojans opened up an eight-point halftime lead. Three other players were also in double figures for USC. Pondexter rebounded somewhat from his earlier performance against USC to post a 18-point, seven-rebound night. Washington earned an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament by virtue of an automatic bid after winning the Pac-10 tourney, and the Huskies have surprised many by upsetting Marquette and New Mexico to earn their way to the Sweet 16. Having won their last nine games, they're scheduled to play second-seeded West Virginia on Thursday.