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Begins Back East : EAST REGIONAL

USC Lassos a Big Dance Partner in Oklahoma State


USC's basketball team is going coast to coast.

The Trojans, having completed a 21-9 regular season, earned their first bid to the NCAA tournament since 1997 on Sunday and will go to the East Regional in Uniondale, N.Y. USC, seeded sixth in the region, will play Oklahoma State, 19-9 and seeded 11th, on Thursday. The game will start at approximately 7:30 p.m.--or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Boston College-Southern Utah game, which is scheduled to begin at 4:40 p.m. at the Nassau Coliseum.

"Now that I know, I can tell my family and friends," forward David Bluthenthal said. "I have some people back in New York."

USC, which finished tied for fourth in the Pacific 10 Conference with California, has appeared in 10 NCAA tournaments and reached the Final Four twice, in 1940 and 1954.

Coach Henry Bibby saw the selection as another step in the building of basketball tradition he feels USC lacks.

"Last year was the start of it," Bibby said. "I thought we had a good opportunity to make some noise around the country until Sam Clancy went down. This year things came together after we had that dry spell.

"I look back, and as I've said all along, we played some good teams during that stretch when we didn't play well. And Arizona and Oregon State were the late teams we really didn't play well against."

Oklahoma State, which finished fifth in the Big 12 Conference and was a second-round loser to Texas in the conference tournament, is making its fourth consecutive trip to the tournament and 19th overall.

USC understands the Cowboys will have much of the country pulling for them. Oklahoma State's season took a tragic turn on Jan. 27, when a plane crash killed two players and eight members of their traveling party.

"We know they will be going through a lot of emotions," Clancy said."

Bluthenthal said he was close to attending Oklahoma State.

"I actually gave Oklahoma State a verbal commitment when I was being recruited," Bluthenthal said. "But then I decided I wanted to come here. They have a lot of tradition over there."

Last season the Cowboys--a team with seven seniors--advanced to the East Regional final before losing to Florida, 77-65. Oklahoma State last went the Final Four in 1995.

Center Brian Scalabrine was not surprised at the NCAA selection committee seeding USC No. 6 or its decision to send the team across the country.

"We got what I thought we would get," Scalabrine said. "I would have been surprised if we had been a seven or an eight. I thought we'd be a six after winning the two games this weekend."

Said Bluthenthal: "We like our seed, but it didn't matter if we were an eight or a nine and had to play a number one. Our intentions are to win a national championship, and you have to beat the best teams on that road anyway."

Bibby was pleased with the seeding and opportunity.

"I'm just happy to get the opportunity," he said. "Of course you'd like to be higher, but we finished fourth in the Pac-10 so there will be teams seeded higher than us. We dropped one or two games in the Pac-10 we should have won, which would have put us where we'd liked to have been.

"I know Oklahoma State and how tough they are, and the year they've had.

Fifth-year senior Jarvis Turner is the only Trojan who was part of USC's 1997 tournament team that lost in the first round to Illinois in Charlotte, N.C. He said this team is better.

"This year it's a totally different feeling because we're a lot more confident," Turner said. "We knew we were going to the tournament, where the last time we weren't quite as sure.

"We've got a good seed, and in the tournament anything can happen. There is no one dominant team in the tournament. We're looking to go out there, play hard and make something happen for ourselves."

Scalabrine said he had seen a couple of Oklahoma State games on television.

"They're very fast and really get up and down the court," he said. "They press, so that's something we have to take care of."

The teams have never met in the NCAA tournament, but have played nine times previously, the last meeting in 1975. Oklahoma State has won five.

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