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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT

The Mad March Begins

65 Teams 64 Games 75 Hours Of Tv Countless Cliches (cinderella, Big Dance...)

USC: Trojans may be seeded higher but Oklahoma State team hit by tragedy is sentimental favorite.

March 15, 2001|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It's not true that everyone is rooting against the Trojans in their first-round game against Oklahoma State tonight in the NCAA tournament's East Regional.

USC can count on members of the New York Trojan Alumni Club, who bought the bulk of the 350 allotted tickets, for backing.

That, however, will be a whisper against the other 16,000-plus fans inside Nassau Coliseum--not to mention the millions of fans who will watch the game on television.

Oklahoma State (20-9) is the story of the tournament, having made the field of 64 despite a midseason tragedy. On Jan. 27, two players and eight others were killed in a plane crash while returning home from a game in Colorado.

If sixth-seeded USC (21-9) weren't in this regional, the Trojans would be rooting for the 11th-seeded Cowboys tonight.

"I think I would," said Brandon Granville, "because everyone goes through tough times."

But instead of pulling for the Cowboys, USC is playing Oklahoma State for the right to advance to Saturday's second-round game against the Boston College-Southern Utah winner.

"We're definitely trying not to get caught up in the hoopla," Jarvis Turner said. "We understand they're going to be the favorite because of what happened. And it's too bad that tragedy occurred. But we want to go in and focus on what we need to do."

"We know they're the sentimental favorite," Sam Clancy said. "But we can't go out there thinking about the tragedy. This is the tournament now."

Besides, Oklahoma State has more recent NCAA tournament experience than USC does. This is the Cowboys' fourth consecutive trip. They played in the tournament seven times in the 1990s. In 1995 Oklahoma State reached the Final Four.

USC, on the other hand, was a tournament team three times in the 1990s. And this is the Trojans' first visit since 1997.

So they understand if they're being overlooked.

"We had expected to have a real big year, but we had ups and downs," Granville said. "But I think we're playing our best ball coming into the tournament."

Which is why, the Trojans say, they did not travel across the country merely to show up for the game.

"Our team deals with adversity very well," Brian Scalabrine said. "This is an adversity situation. If everybody does their role, we'll be OK."

"They may be America's favorite team right now, no matter who they play. But we will be prepared," Jeff Trepagnier said. "We've been watching film on them since Monday. We know almost all their plays and player tendencies. We've prepared for them as much as any team in the Pac-10."

USC has to pay particular attention to Maurice Baker, the Cowboys' clever point guard who has averaged 20.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists. "At 6-1, he may be the best offensive rebounding guard I've seen in the country," USC Coach Henry Bibby said.

The Cowboys' inside threat is 6-10 power forward Fredrik Jonzen, who averages 15 points while making 52.1% of his field-goal attempts.

But what Oklahoma State depends on is defense. The Cowboys, on the average, give up 64 points a game. They've held opponents to a 40.2% shooting percentage but have a penchant for turnovers (17 a game) and fouls (19 a game).

That being said, the Trojans sounded more concerned about the Cowboys speeding up the game than slowing it down. "We have to be careful not to get into an up-and-down game with them," Granville said. "We excel in the halfcourt. We're going to try and grind it out, and win in the end."

The Trojans are confident. Their lopsided victories against Washington and Washington State last weekend have done a lot to repair the team's psyche that looked so tattered after consecutive losses to Arizona and Oregon State.

The Trojans believe a multifaceted attack can work against the Cowboys' pressure defense. Should Granville and David Bluthenthal shoot well against Oklahoma State, that will give Clancy and Scalabrine more room to operate. And it will keep the Cowboys from concentrating on one or two Trojans.

And if the erratic Trepagnier gets hot as well, the Cowboy defense is pulled in yet another direction.

Cowboy Coach Eddie Sutton said his team needs more than a tidal wave of emotion tonight.

"I don't think we've played an outstanding game since a month ago against Oklahoma," Sutton said. "We have won, but it's not been pretty. Our defense has kept us in games. But I know it's a real challenge to play Southern California."

Turner said to expect such a challenge.

"We're the type of team that's good in a tournament," Turner said. "We really haven't had a home-court advantage all year playing in the Sports Arena, given the fact we don't practice there. Plus, we play up to the opponent's level. . . . When our back's against the wall we come out fighting."

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