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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

After Traveling A Bumpy Road To Philadelphia, Usc And Ucla Know...how Sweet It Is

USC: Bibby believed Trojans could be something special, but it took time for team to come together and build its confidence.

March 19, 2001|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — To paraphrase a formerly popular song, the USC Trojans today find themselves living in another part of the world--the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament.

And considering the kind of season the Trojans had, some may ask how they got here.

After two years of barely above .500 basketball and no NCAA tournament invitations, Coach Henry Bibby and his staff had pointed toward making this season the big season--meaning 20 or more wins, finishing in the top four of the Pacific 10 Conference and playing deep into March.

His core group of players had been together nearly three years, and the starting five returned intact. The schedule, on paper, posed no serious threat until conference play began in January.

Yet in February the Trojans' season appeared in disarray and on the brink of collapse. Now, a month later, they are playing Kentucky in the East Regional, and are two wins away from the Final Four.

"How far can we go? Who knows," Bibby said. "I think we have the momentum. Basketball is about peaks and valleys and I think we've peaked at the right time.

"Right now this is the most focused I've seen this basketball team. It's not about 'numbers' anymore, it's about winning."

*

Back in November it was about anticipation.

USC, ranked No. 23 in the preseason poll, couldn't wait to get started. The starting lineup of David Bluthenthal, Sam Clancy, Brandon Granville, Brian Scalabrine and Jeff Trepagnier was balanced, experienced, happy and committed to playing together. Jarvis Turner, whose senior year was ruined by injury, was granted a fifth year of eligibility. Other returning reserves--Nate Hair and Kostas Charissis, plus newcomers Robert Hutchinson and Desmon Farmer--appeared to give USC the depth it had lacked.

But trouble began immediately.

Trepagnier, coming off a solid junior year and projected as a potential NBA first-round draft pick, learned he had a stress fracture in his left foot and sat out the first three games.

He was expected to return for the team's Dec. 2 game against Utah in the Wooden Classic. Instead, he was suspended because of an NCAA investigation.

NCAA officials first looked into a trip to Las Vegas Trepagnier took in September with friend and Fresno State basketball player Tito Maddox. (Maddox would eventually serve an eight-game suspension.) Although Trepagnier was cleared regarding the trip, investigators turned their attention to a loan Trepagnier took out to lease a Cadillac Escalade, an SUV vehicle with an estimated value of more than $40,000.

The loan was co-signed by Warren Edmonson, the father of Trepagnier's fiancee Malika, who is a scholarship track and field athlete at USC. His wife Barbara was a volunteer track coach at USC, and because of that the NCAA said Trepagnier would need another co-signer to be reinstated.

Trepagnier solved the problem by marrying Malika. But he missed all of the team's nonconference schedule. And the Trojans' chemistry had changed.

Farmer, a prized freshman recruit, filled in admirably and occasionally brilliantly for Trepagnier. But he was more of a freelancer within the team's tightknit offensive and defensive systems. The other starters worked with Farmer, but they also worked around him.

The patch job succeeded early; USC won its first eight games, averaged 85 points a game and got as high as 12th in the rankings. But Bibby, whose intensity about basketball never ebbs, came off joyless and occasionally prickly in the postgame interviews.

It was never what the team did, it was what it didn't do. Only one or two players were putting out full effort. One night the defense would take a game off, another night the offense wouldn't execute.

What Bibby was looking for, but could not or would not articulate to outsiders, was perfection. This was the team that was going places. Everything had to be done just right every time.

The first real red flag was Northwestern, which USC played in Evanston, Ill., two days after returning from a tournament in Hawaii. Northwestern was a bad team, but it ran off the first 15 points of the game and beat a ranked opponent for the first time in several years.

USC won its final nonconference game and was 10-2 going into Pac-10 play. It went through the first half of conference in good shape, losing only to UCLA, Arizona and Stanford on the road. And Trepagnier was back in the starting lineup.

The Trojans were tied for third, had been through their toughest road games and were ready to establish themselves as a premier team.

Or so they believed.

*

USC began the second half of conference at home against UCLA. As a coming out party, it was a disaster. Not only were the Trojans beaten convincingly by the Bruins, all of their warts were exposed. Trepagnier was rusty and had no outside shot. Farmer moped over going to the bench. The depth Bibby had been counting on had not materialized. And worse, the team's confidence had been badly shaken.

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