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USC BASKETBALL

Trojans still have an opportunity at reaching NCAA tournament

But to get to the big dance, Tim Floyd's fading team will have to win next week's Pacific 10 Conference tournament.

March 05, 2009|Chris Foster

The nation's economic woes resonate in USC's basketball locker room, which left Trojans forward Taj Gibson standing in front of his teammates last week and telling them how lucky they were.

"In this economic crisis, people aren't getting the same opportunities," he said. "We have the opportunity to be at a university for free and play the game we love. No matter what happens, stick together."

Well, the Trojans have certainly had a Dow Jones look to them of late, capped by an 11-point collapse against Stanford on Saturday. There are bigger free falls out there, but USC Coach Tim Floyd would have to delve into the business section to find them.

Losing six of the last seven games has put any dreams of an NCAA tournament at-large berth to bed, leaving the Pacific 10 Conference tournament as USC's yellow brick road. Win three games -- or four -- at Staples Center next week and the Trojans will head off to see the NCAA tournament. Lose once and Selection Sunday won't be a fun day.

"That's how we have to view it," Floyd said.

So something that might seem trivial, such as whether the Trojans finish in sixth or seventh place in the conference, is important. It's the difference between having to play three games in three nights or four in four for a team that is thin in depth.

"We'd prefer playing one less, sure," Floyd said. "You're always trying to finish as high as you can. That's the significance to me."

There are as many scenarios as there are reasons why the Trojans have faltered in the second half of conference play. One has them entering the conference tournament as the fifth-seeded team. Another has them ninth, with a rematch against Stanford in the play-in round Wednesday.

In all, there are 11 different ways this could play out for the Trojans -- with eight leaving them in fifth or sixth place. The direct route is beating Oregon tonight and Oregon State on Saturday.

"We have to play with a sense of desperation," said guard Daniel Hackett.

Added guard Dwight Lewis: "We understand it is still open for us to make an NCAA run. We've just got to put together some wins."

Winning three games in three nights? The Trojans have managed only one victory in the last 32 days, going from a half-game out of first place to a half-game out of sixth in that span.

Rock bottom -- or so the Trojans hope -- was hit in the last 14 minutes against ninth-place Stanford. USC was outscored, 40-17, and a tense locker room scene followed.

"The last two losses really bothered the guys," Gibson said. "But there are no excuses; those games were in our hands."

Floyd summed up the Trojans' woes this way: "At UCLA, at Arizona, at Arizona State, at California, at Stanford. What is UCLA's record at home? What is Arizona's record at home? What is Arizona State's record at home? What is California's record at home?"

None have more than two losses at home this season. Yet those teams and conference leader Washington have all found ways to win at least one key game on the road. The Trojans haven't.

Poor free-throw shooting is one issue. USC made only 25 of 49 against California and Stanford -- only four of 12 in the closing minutes of regulation in those games, when one extra point would have meant a victory instead of an overtime loss to the Bears. The Trojans rank 256th nationally in free-throw percentage at 66.2%.

The stimulus-like solution to the team's skid?

"Nobody is quitting here," Gibson said. " . . . One thing about being in college and becoming men, you have to dig deep and get yourself out of these situations."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

--

USC tonight

VS. OREGON

Time: 7:30.

On the air: TV: none; Radio: 710.

Where: Galen Center.

Records: USC 16-12, 7-9 Pac-10; Oregon 8-20, 2-14.

Update: The Ducks have had a season on the blink but did win their last two games, something the Trojans can't claim. Oregon's Tajuan Porter is one of those pesky small guards USC has had difficulty against. The 5-foot-6 junior is averaging 20 points in the last four games. The Trojans have lost six of their last seven but five of those defeats have been on the road. USC has a 13-2 record at the Galen Center this season.

-- Chris Foster

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