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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Pruitt brings fresh outlook

His career started awkwardly, but now junior guard has USC in the postseason

March 15, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Two years before he could lock down the Pacific 10 Conference's top guards and help lead USC back to the NCAA tournament, Gabe Pruitt had to face a more frightening opponent:

His teammates.

Pruitt was a freshman on a senior-laden Trojans team cast adrift by the early-season firing of Coach Henry Bibby, and it soon became clear that the older players were sticking together at the expense of the underclassmen.

"There were times they would bully us just because we were freshmen, to see how we would respond to that," Pruitt recalled. "You could really see it in practices and games that there's two different groups."

Fortunately for Pruitt, the coach who replaced Bibby on an interim basis ended up siding with the freshmen. Jim Saia liked their attitude and their talent and thought they gave his team the best chance to win.

"I knew I was only going to be there for a short period of time and I knew for the future of the program this was the right thing to do," said Saia, who moved Pruitt into the starting lineup. "I really shocked the seniors when I did that."

Two years later, Pruitt and the Trojans are surprising the prognosticators who picked USC to finish sixth in the Pac-10 and -- at best -- advance to the National Invitation Tournament. Instead, the fifth-seeded Trojans (23-11) open play in the NCAA tournament Friday against 12th-seeded Arkansas (21-13) in an East Regional first-round game in Spokane, Wash.

Pruitt, a 6-foot-4 junior point guard, has helped lead the way by averaging 12.6 points and 4.1 assists while containing the likes of Arizona's Mustafa Shakur and Oregon's Aaron Brooks. His fiery demeanor inspired USC to a come-from-behind victory over Stanford last week in a Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal, and his season-high 26 points the following day helped the Trojans get past Washington State in a semifinal.

"I knew it was going to click for him," said USC junior swingman Nick Young, Pruitt's roommate and close friend who also participated in the freshman uprising two years ago. "He knows his role on the team perfectly and he's a dominant point guard. He takes care of things on the defensive end and hits open shots."

Of course, it's not as if everything clicked for Pruitt the moment he became a freshman starter. The Trojans finished with a losing record that season and lost seven of nine games to close last year, which ended without a postseason berth.

Then came a series of more jarring developments. Freshman point guard Ryan Francis was fatally shot last May, necessitating a switch back to point guard for Pruitt, who had moved over to shooting guard as a sophomore.

But that move was put on hold in June when Pruitt learned that he had failed a sociology course and would have to sit out the first semester while improving his grades.

"It wasn't like the class was hard," Pruitt said. "It was me not really staying on top of things, just being lackadaisical about things."

Pruitt had been forced to watch from the sidelines before. As a junior at Westchester High, he was declared ineligible by the California Interscholastic Federation's City Section because of alleged recruiting violations in the wake of his transfer from Compton Centennial.

Among the things Pruitt missed were a chance to compete against LeBron James in a showcase game and a run to the Division I state title.

Four years later, it pained him to watch his USC teammates lose to South Carolina in their season opener and then fall short against Kansas on the road a few weeks later.

"I watched it on TV," Pruitt said of the Trojans' 72-62 loss to the nationally ranked Jayhawks. "We were right there. We were so close. I just felt I could give them that extra push that they needed."

Pruitt didn't make much of a jolt in his first two games back, combining for two points and two rebounds in a loss to Kansas State and a victory over Wichita State.

But he scored 18 points and had six assists during USC's conference opener, an 86-79 double-overtime victory over Washington that set the tone for a Pac-10 season in which the Trojans finished in a three-way tie for third with Oregon and Arizona.

USC swept the Ducks and Wildcats during the regular season, winning at Arizona's McKale Center for the first time since 1985.

"That was a major, major accomplishment for us," Pruitt said.

So was the Trojans' reaching their first NCAA tournament in five years. Pruitt said he's leaving open the possibility of declaring for the NBA draft after this season depending on how he fares in the tournament and the Orlando, Fla., pre-draft camp.

There's also strong lures pulling him back for his senior season. He could obtain his degree and play alongside heralded recruit O.J. Mayo, who figures to put USC in the national spotlight his entire freshman season.

For now, Pruitt wants to enjoy the moment. He ran into Saia at the Galen Center on Monday and thanked his former coach for accelerating his development during such a turbulent time.

"It was tough," Pruitt said of his start-and-stop journey. "Any other person probably would have said, 'Man, this place is not for me.' I knew eventually that things could go this way the whole time. I just knew at some point it was going to stop and really settle down."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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