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NIT : Trojans Have a Chance to Prove They Belonged

March 16, 1994|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Pacific 10 Conference had its own basketball tournament this year, USC would have had a good chance to be an upset winner and gain a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Ask UCLA, California and Washington State, three of the four Pac-10 teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament after losing to the Trojans within the last month.

But because the Pac-10 doesn't have a tournament, USC (16-11) will have to play at Fresno State (19-10) tonight at 9 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

The lack of a Pac-10 tournament might have cost USC a potential NCAA berth, but the most blame should fall on the Trojans themselves and their slow conference start.

With four highly regarded freshmen joining returning starters Lorenzo Orr, Mark Boyd and Burt Harris, USC began the season with high expectations. The Trojans' post-season hopes went even higher after they won seven of nine non-league games against inferior opponents and their first three Pac-10 games.

USC then hit rock bottom by losing six consecutive games.

"We had identity problems at the beginning of the season," said Damaine Powell, a senior point guard and co-captain. "A lot of people tried to thrust Lorenzo into a superstar role and our go-to guy. But it wasn't a role he was ready for as he tried to live up to it.

"Then, a lot of people expected our freshmen to come in and be the Fab Four and be leaders. But they didn't know what to expect and they immediately tried to live up to what the media made them out to be."

This complex mixture added up to frustration as the Trojans found themselves fighting to stay out of last place in conference with a 3-6 record and a 10-8 mark overall.

Coach George Raveling tried to keep the Trojans' situation positive and made up a flyer that detailed what the team needed to do to gain an NIT bid by winning seven or eight of their final nine games.

When Raveling told reporters about his flyer, he knew that he sounded like a used car salesman.

"I can understand why people were skeptical and for good reason," said Raveling, who has led USC to four consecutive post-season tournaments. "When you broke it down, we were setting a goal one way and were going the other way on the court."

USC responded by defeating NCAA-bound Washington State, 70-64, before dropping down to lose to Washington, 50-49, two days later. After a 33-point loss to Arizona, the Trojans looked dead.

That's when Raveling's positive underdog approach took over.

Starting with an upset victory on the road over NIT-bound Arizona State, USC went on to win five of its last six games, including its last four. Instead of packing for a long spring break, the Trojans find themselves playing in the NIT for the second consecutive year.

Against Fresno State, the Trojans will have to continue their strong play to keep their winning streak alive. The Bulldogs, who finished second in the Western Athletic Conference, have won 11 of their last 14 games and are coached by Gary Colson, who has won 548 games in 33 years.

Fresno State, which has a 13-2 home record this season, is led by Carl Ray Harris, a senior guard who averaged 30 points in two games in the WAC tournament last week.

USC will have to play without guard Brandon Martin, who has a stress fracture in his right foot. Freshman Stais Boseman will start in his place, with Powell in reserve.

"That's the thing about us, from one to 10, we have as much talent as anyone," said Powell, who defeated Oregon State with a last second shot Saturday. "So, when one goes down, another guy steps up in his place. We don't have a Jason Kidd or a Lamond Murray or even a Damon Stoudamire or a go-to guy like that. But we do have a lot of guys who are now stepping up and getting the job done."

Trojan Notes

The winner between Fresno State and the Trojans will play the winner of Arizona State (15-12), which ended the season by defeating Pac-10 champion Arizona, and Brigham Young (21-9), the runner-up in the WAC Tournament championship game. If the Trojans win, they will play Monday night at the Sports Arena.

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