The sense of anticipation that saturated USC's Galen Center Sunday afternoon was replaced by one of pride after the Trojans' seeding and draw for the NCAA tournament were revealed.
The Trojans, who had gathered to watch the selection show in the on-campus athletic dining facility, had a familiar swagger in their step and their chests puffed out a bit after being awarded a No. 4 seeding in the South Regional.
USC (22-9) will play 13th-seeded North Carolina Wilmington (22-9), champion of the Colonial Athletic Assn., in a first-round game Thursday. It is USC's highest seeding since getting a No. 2 in 1992 and, with the NCAA making a concerted effort to keep higher-seeded teams closer to home, the Trojans will be playing at Sacramento's Arco Arena.
"I think it's a sign of recognition and respect by the people in the selection committee," USC senior forward Sam Clancy said. "I think they saw what we did all year. We've come a long way, a long way from not making the tournament to going to the Elite Eight last year to where we're at now."
In awarding the Trojans a No. 4 seeding, the selection committee basically told USC that it is one of the top 16 teams in the nation.
"Is that what that means?" USC Coach Henry Bibby asked with a smile. "Well then, that's good. I like that.
"But now let's just play basketball because ... seeds four through 13, there are always upsets."
That doesn't figure to happen in the Trojans' case, though.
USC is playing perhaps its best basketball of the season after advancing to the championship game of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament this weekend by beating No. 16 Stanford, 103-78, and No. 9 Oregon, 89-78, before tiring and falling to No. 15 Arizona, 81-71.
Having played three grueling games of full-court press defense in three days, the No. 22-ranked Trojans also were rewarded in that they don't have to travel cross-country for a first-round game as they did last year when a No. 6 seeding sent them to Long Island, N.Y.
"It's only an hour flight so it should be an advantage for us," Bibby said of playing in Northern California. "Hopefully it works out for us. We're not out of our element, the element of flying an hour to play Berkeley [California] or Stanford [in a regular-season game]. That's what I'm pleased with."
Said USC senior guard Brandon Granville: "We don't have to fly cross-country, worry about a time change or the weather. Plus, we should get added fan support and that energizes us and helps us play with more energy."
North Carolina Wilmington, meanwhile, is less than thrilled about having to travel so far.
"You can't be disappointed because there are a lot of other teams who have their equipment packed away," Seahawk Coach Jerry Wainwright said. "Do we want to play in Sacramento? Of course not. Do we want to play in the NCAA tournament? Of course we do.
"There might be some deflation because it's three time zones away. It has nothing to do with our spirit and will. It's more that few of our families will be able to see us in person. Somebody had to travel. I just don't know why it was us."
While the Trojans admitted they know little about the Seahawks, USC does have tape of them in house.
In preparing to face Miami of Ohio on Dec. 16, the Trojans watched video of the RedHawks. Their opponent on the tape--North Carolina Wilmington.
The Seahawks beat the RedHawks, 50-42, at home on Nov. 17, before USC held on for a 59-55 victory at the Sports Arena.
The Trojans, though, will have to delve deeper in their preparations.
"Nothing," Granville said when asked what he knew about North Carolina Wilmington. "Absolutely nothing. Most of us don't have a clue. They probably know us more than we know them."
So, by way of introduction ...
The Seahawks, who began the season with a 79-78 loss at Wake Forest in the preseason National Invitation Tournament, enter the NCAA tournament having won 10 of 12, including their league tournament.
They can play either a slow-down, half-court offense or get it going in transition. The Seahawks are averaging 67.1 points while giving up 60.2. Junior shooting guard Brett Blizzard, who leads the team with a 17.5-point scoring average, loves to shoot it from the outside. He has already launched 213 three-point attempts, making 39% of them.
Clancy said the Trojans couldn't get ahead of themselves by looking at possible second-round or Sweet 16 opponents.
"I know from tournament experience that you can't take anyone lightly," he said. "We can't look ahead to Indiana or Duke or we'll go home early."
If that were to happen to the Trojans, the respect afforded them by their relatively high seeding would be for naught.
"I think we're gradually getting more respect," Granville said. "We're still searching for more, though, and that's what keeps us hungry."