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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Now that it has everyone's attention, USC wants more

March 23, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — USC christened a new season and a $130-million arena with an intrasquad scrimmage in October, and few seemed to care.

About 50 people showed up at the Galen Center to watch the Trojans play their Cardinal & Gold game, and those who didn't attend were hard-pressed to find any details, since pretty much the only media coverage consisted of an Internet blurb.

But when USC plays North Carolina tonight in an NCAA East Regional semifinal, a sellout crowd of 20,029 is expected at Continental Airlines Arena, and those in Southern California who miss the game will have their choice of television channels and newspapers to check for the highlights.

"It's a great feeling going out there and winning and knowing that we have more national exposure," said junior swingman Nick Young, who has averaged 21 points during USC's NCAA tournament victories over Arkansas and Texas. "The more national attention we get, the more everybody's in the spotlight."

By advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001, fifth-seeded USC (25-11) has already won in some respects -- regardless of the outcome of its game against the top-seeded Tar Heels (30-6). The Trojans have revived interest in a long-suffering program and figure to be an even bigger draw next season with the arrival of a heralded recruiting class led by point guard O.J. Mayo.

Of course, the Trojans also would like to extend this unexpected joyride one more stop.

"We have to realize that we're two wins away from going to Atlanta for the Final Four," junior guard Gabe Pruitt said.

Said freshman guard Daniel Hackett: "It's the NCAA tournament, so anything can happen."

USC has already defeated fourth-seeded Texas, a team many prognosticators had picked to be playing North Carolina tonight instead of the Trojans. That's fine with the USC players, who have become impervious to doubters

"For me, that's the best thing, knowing that you're the underdog and you can come in and really open eyes and make a difference," Pruitt said. "Guys are kind of going against you, and the best thing for me is proving them wrong and getting a win and making them say, 'This team is for real.' "

In North Carolina, the Trojans will face a challenge unlike any other this season. The Tar Heels have a big front line, go 10 deep and rotate their players so that they can apply constant defensive pressure while playing an up-and-down style that produces an average of 86.1 points a game.

"It will be a different type of pressure than what we've seen against Arkansas and against Texas," said USC Coach Tim Floyd, who earlier this week lamented the NBA's age-restriction rules that prevented North Carolina freshmen Ty Lawson, Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington from jumping directly to the professional level instead of making a college cameo to badger the Trojans.

Asked whether it had sunk in that USC was only two wins from the Final Four, Floyd said it hadn't, "because you're also one loss from being out."

But if the Trojans can somehow get past the Tar Heels, Floyd said, he would "certainly be thinking that way. I'll certainly be talking it."

An upset in itself, considering that five months ago the Trojans weren't a part of anybody's conversation.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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USC matchups

A look at the Trojans' NCAA regional semifinal against North Carolina:

*--* STARTERS USC Ht. Wt. Stats Pos NORTH Ht. Wt. Stats CAROLINA Nick Young 6-6 200 17.6 ppg F/F Reyshawn 6-8 232 9.8 ppg Terry Taj Gibson 6-9 210 8.6 rpg F/F Brandan 6-9 205 14.6 ppg Wright Gabe Pruitt 6-4 170 12.4 ppg G/G Ty Lawson 5-11 193 5.6 apg Lodrick 6-4 210 13.8 ppg G/G Wayne 6-4 195 11.9 ppg Stewart Ellington Abdoulaye 6-11 220 2.9 rpg C/F Tyler 6-9 245 18.6 ppg N'diaye Hansbroug h RESERVES RouSean 6-11 217 2.4 ppg F/F Deon 6-8 245 4.5 ppg Cromwell Thompson Daniel 6-5 205 5.3 ppg G/G Danny 6-5 210 5.2 ppg Hackett Green Dwight 6-5 200 6.0 ppg G/G Marcus 6-5 218 3.0 rpg Lewis Ginyard

*--*

HOW THEY MATCH UP

* INSIDE -- North Carolina's front line might be a little less imposing if Terry is unable to play because of strep throat. Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams said Thursday that Terry was able to participate only sparingly in practice and that his fifth-leading scorer could play, but he was "not real, real encouraged." Terry's absence would increase the burden on Hansbrough and Wright, who average a combined 33.2 points and 14 rebounds. The Trojans will need contributions from more than Gibson to combat the Tar Heels' inside depth. N'diaye and Cromwell should draw confidence from playing reasonably well against Hansbrough last season during USC's 74-59 victory over North Carolina at the Sports Arena.

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