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USC BASKETBALL

Trojans' opponents try to take the fifth (starter)

Coach Tim Floyd has not gotten consistent production from the last spot in the lineup, and defenses have taken advantage by leaving that man to double team Trojans' more established players.

February 28, 2009|Chris Foster

SAN FRANCISCO — It's almost a reality show, "Who Wants To Be a USC Starter." But for Trojans Coach Tim Floyd, some episodes are a little too real.

There have been times during the Pacific 10 Conference season when the Trojans, even with five players on the court, appeared to be playing short-handed.

Guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis, center Taj Gibson and forward DeMar DeRozan give USC a sometime fab four. That fifth starter, though, has seemed like a fifth wheel. Opposing teams have recognized that and have defended the Trojans accordingly, often playing off the fifth starter to provide help elsewhere.

"That's a part of coaching, taking advantage of matchups, using a guy to help on others," Floyd said. "You have to understand your opponents' strengths and weaknesses, and they have done a good job of that."

Leonard Washington, Keith Wilkinson, Nikola Vucevic and Marcus Johnson have taken turns as the fifth starter. That group has averaged 5.4 points as starters in 15 conference games heading into tonight's game at Stanford.

Injuries have had an effect. Washington had an ankle injury and Johnson is out because of a shoulder injury, underscoring the lack of depth on the roster.

In an 81-78 overtime loss to California on Thursday, little-used Marcus Simmons was the wrong guy in the right spot. With time running out in regulation, USC got the ball to Gibson in the post. He was immediately double-teamed by Simmons' man, and passed to Simmons, whose shot was blocked.

"I didn't go up strong enough," said Simmons, who had a season-high six points. "They boxed me out and I didn't get to the rim strong."

This didn't appear to be the direction the Trojans were headed when the season began.

Washington, a 6-foot-7 freshman, was developing into a handful, averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in his first 10 games. That production ended when Washington suffered a sprained ankle against Georgia Tech. He has started six games since and averaged six points and three rebounds.

"I feel like I lost a lot of my intensity when I got hurt," Washington said. "I had to sit down and have a talk with myself to see if there was a way I could get back to being the player I used to be, the hard rebounding, the scrappy guy. I lost a little aggressiveness and tried to be a little fancy. Now it is time to get back to work."

He had three points and one rebound against the Golden Bears.

Floyd has tried to fill the void, looking for the right matchups. Vucevic, a 6-10 freshman, was the answer against Washington State, with eight points in each of two games against the Cougars. Floyd said, "We're thrilled with what we've seen from a guy who doesn't shave yet," but also admits that other matchups have worked against Vucevic.

Wilkinson, a 6-10 senior, and Johnson, a 6-6 senior, have been in the mix. Wilkinson, like Vucevic, doesn't match up well against quicker teams. Johnson's season may be over; he has missed the last six games.

Simmons was effective at times against California, playing 22 minutes after having played only 34 minutes in his previous eight games. He was used to corral Jerome Randle, the Bears' gnat-like 5-8 guard.

"We extended our defense 94 feet and it seemed to get them a little bit out of rhythm," Floyd said.

Said Simmons: "I felt I got into the flow. . . . It had been a while since I played that much, but I always have to make myself ready. Whoever Coach puts in has to be ready."

And willing, though they have not always been able.

chris.foster@latimes.com

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