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A Lack of Success That's Almost Unrivaled

It has been 15 years since USC and UCLA played when both had losing records. Chances aren't good for either team reaching NCAA tournament.

February 05, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

As USC players filed out of Heritage Hall on Tuesday on their way to the Sports Arena for practice, they were in a playful mood.

Still basking in a two-day-old afterglow of their most complete game of the year -- an upset over Oregon -- the Trojans were looking forward to possibly adding to bitter rival UCLA's misery tonight by sweeping the Bruins for the first time in 11 years.

"Let's go fellas," junior guard Roy Smiley said. "The road to New Orleans starts now."

There's no doubt Smiley was using hyperbole in urging his teammates to commence a Final Four run to the Big Easy, especially with USC sitting at 8-9 overall, 4-5 at the midway point of Pacific 10 Conference play.

But his mischief illustrated the mood at USC, where the Trojans still harbor hopes, as fanciful as they may be, of advancing to the NCAA tournament for a school record third consecutive year without winning the Pac-10 tournament to receive a bid.

The Bruins, meanwhile, are in ninth place in the conference at 2-7, 4-13 overall, and are in danger of not even qualifying for the league tournament, which they undoubtedly would have to win to reach the tournament for a 15th consecutive season.

So while USC may have grabbed the upper hand in the rivalry of late, winning two of the last three cross-town games, perhaps never before in the 75-year history of the rivalry have the NCAA prospects of USC and UCLA looked so bleak.

For sure, it's the first time since Feb. 11, 1988, when the Trojans were 5-15 in George Raveling's second year at USC and the Bruins were 10-11 in Walt Hazzard's fourth and final season in Westwood, in which both the Trojans and Bruins enter a rivalry game with losing records.

"We still want 20 wins," Trojan junior guard Desmon Farmer said, with a straight face. "We're looking at winning out [and then winning at least one Pac-10 tournament game]. It's going to be hard for us, but that's what we want to do. I think we can do it.

"If it comes to [having to win] the Pac-10 tournament to get in, we'll just have to step it up another level. But it would be great for us if we didn't have to."

In 1997, Henry Bibby's first full season as USC coach, the Trojans received an at-large bid with a 17-11 record. But the selection committee was impressed with USC's 12 league wins, which put the Trojans in a tie for second place along with eventual national champion Arizona.

With one nonconference game remaining, at NCAA-contending Nevada Las Vegas on Sunday, the young Trojans, who have made taking two steps forward and one step back an art form, could make a case for an at-large bid by beating the Rebels and going 7-2 to close out Pac-10 play. And that's with trips to Arizona and Oregon left.

That would put USC at 16-11 entering the Pac-10 tournament, but it would probably have to advance to the championship game for a second consecutive year to be considered for the playoffs.

Winning out? Winning the Pac-10 tournament down the street from USC's campus may be a more realistic goal.

"Every game is winnable there, because, first of all, it's right here at Staples Center," Trojan senior center Kostas Charissis said. "It's kind of like a home game for us and hopefully people will be there, like last year, and support us. We'd have a chance to play good like last year, win some games and go to the NCAA."

UCLA is a different story.

Because while first the Bruins have to finish higher than ninth to qualify for the Pac-10 tournament, they would have to embark on a magnificent run just to get to .500 and receive an invitation to the far-less-prestigious National Invitation Tournament.

"We know we have to win the Pac-10 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament," Bruin senior forward Jason Kapono said. "We've known that for a while. But at this point it doesn't do any good to look ahead. We just need to win a game."

Sophomore point guard Cedric Bozeman agreed.

"All that talk about the tournament isn't really helpful right now," Bozeman said. "We just need a win. It's really tough losing like this, and thinking about the Pac-10 tournament or the NCAA tournament doesn't add anything at this point.

"We still think we can get there, but we have a lot of work to do first."

USC, which began the Bruins' current eight-game slide with an 80-75 win at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 8, has a chance to virtually assure UCLA's NCAA record of 54 consecutive winning seasons coming to an inglorious end.

A Trojan victory would mean that the Bruins have to win their final nine regular season games as well as the Pac-10 tournament to assure themselves of a winning season.

"We have nothing to lose either," USC sophomore guard Errick Craven said. "We're trying to get a sweep, trying to make history, so we're going to come at them just as hard. They have reasons to have motivation and we have reasons too."


Times staff writer Steve Henson contributed to this report.


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