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USC seeks its way in desert

Trojans are in the Pac-10 hunt, but victories over Arizona schools

February 12, 2009|Chris Foster

This much is mountain-lake clear to USC players.

"Everything is pretty blurry right now," guard Daniel Hackett said about the Pacific 10 Conference race.

Bifocals, though, are not required to map out the Trojans' difficult path ahead.

USC plays four of its next six games on the road, starting tonight at Arizona. In that mix are four teams looking for a little elbow room in the conference standings, including the Wildcats, winners of five consecutive games, and 18th-ranked Arizona State, which the Trojans play Sunday.

In an uncertain time, a sweep would certainly look good on the Trojans' resume.

The Pac-10 sent six teams to the tournament a year ago, but that number will almost certainly be reduced as the Pac-10 was labeled as having a down year two months ago.

USC Coach Tim Floyd said, "five," when asked how many conference teams would make it.

Said Hackett: "Right now, I couldn't even guess."

The Trojans (15-7 overall, 6-4 in conference play) are seeking a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the first time in the program's history.

All the mock NCAA pairings include the Trojans . . . at the moment. A loss this weekend, though, could change things, as UCLA appears to be the only team that is a lock. Everyone else is crunching the numbers.

"You start looking around the country, and I'm not sure there are quite as many good mid-majors compared to the elite group we saw the last few years," Arizona Coach Russ Pennell said. "Some other teams that people thought would get in are headed the wrong way.

"I'm hoping at the end of the day what happened is the Pac-10 was a young league that is now grown up. . . . I'm hoping the committee will look at that too."

Pennell and the Wildcats can hold up under committee scrutiny, provided they finish strong. Arizona (16-8, 6-5) is the only Pac-10 team to beat a nonconference opponent currently ranked in the top 25. The Wildcats defeated No. 16 Kansas and No. 19 Gonzaga in December.

Meanwhile, the Trojans have close losses to second-ranked Oklahoma and 17th-ranked Missouri. USC's only victory against a "big" conference opponent was against Georgia Tech, which is last in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That seems to make this trip into Arizona important.

"We need to win one of two," Hackett said.

Still, Floyd said even two losses wouldn't eliminate the Trojans' hopes.

"I don't think so," Floyd said. "The remaining games determine everything. . . . The last couple years we were 11-7 [in conference play], so I don't think it would be a big deal. Obviously, we can help to get separation if we get two. We don't view it as do-or-die."

USC is bunched with Washington, Arizona State, California and Arizona. All are within two games of one another with a good chance that one or two teams will not make the tournament.

"It's either win or go home," USC forward Taj Gibson said. "We've been in this situation the last two years. Guys understand these two road games are real important."

A year ago, USC responded well after losing a late-season game to UCLA, finishing the regular season by winning five of six games. That run was fueled by O.J. Mayo, who averaged 28 points in those six games.

No one on this team has shown the ability to carry the Trojans in that fashion. Still, Floyd said, "We've got a group of pretty resilient kids, and they will certainly have the opportunity to be resilient down the stretch."

Said Hackett: "We have to keep our focus. You know, in a week things can be really good or really bad."

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chris.foster@latimes.com

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

USC tonight

AT ARIZONA

Time: 7:30 PST

Site: McKale Center, Tucson.

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket. Radio: 710.

Records: USC 15-7, 6-4; Arizona 16-8, 6-5.

Update: There are still four weeks left in the regular season, but Pacific 10 Conference coaches are already doing the math. "We have four home games and four road games left," USC's Tim Floyd said. "We need to win at home and try to steal a couple on the road." That will be a chore against Arizona, which has won five games in a row to get back into the NCAA tournament discussions. The Wildcats have made the tournament 23 consecutive years. "If we play like we've played the last seven games, we'll get it done. If not, we won't," Coach Russ Pennell said. "That's the reality here." The Trojans beat the Wildcats at home last month, 65-64.

-- Chris Foster

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