USC tonight will play its first game in a Pacific 10 Conference tournament that is as clear as a stagnant pond.
Washington is the conference's regular-season champion, so the Huskies might be the favorite. Except: They lost twice to California, which lost twice to Oregon State, which lost twice to UCLA, which lost twice to Arizona State, which lost twice to Washington State, which lost twice to USC, which lost twice to Washington.
"That's crazy," Trojans center Taj Gibson said. "I don't know how to put it into words, but the fact is, there is so much parity that any night you can be beaten. You have to stay focused."
That should be easy for USC, which opens against California at 6 at Staples Center. The conference's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament is the grand prize this weekend, with the thanks-for-playing parting gift being a probable spot in the NIT for the Trojans.
USC would seem to need to win the tournament to get into the NCAAs, though the Trojans are holding out hope that reaching the championship game would be enough.
Guard Daniel Hackett paints with broad strokes, saying, "We're trying to make something happen in this program, make something happen in the city of Los Angeles, which is a media town, you know, a gossip, high-life city. It is important."
So either the Trojans can look back with regret . . .
"We have had a lot of close games that we let slip from our hands," Hackett said. "We win a couple of those games and it would be a different story."
. . . or look ahead with hope . . .
"I can't control the selection committee," Coach Tim Floyd said. "But I have heard scenarios that if we get to the [conference tournament] championship game, we have a shot."
Everything starts with Cal.
The teams split their season series, USC pulling away for a 73-62 victory at home and California winning in overtime, 81-78, after blowing an 11-point lead in Berkeley. Guards Patrick Christopher (29 points) and Jerome Randle (15 points) carried the Bears in that game.
"Last time we saw them, they wore us out from the perimeter," Floyd said.
The Golden Bears have few NCAA worries. California jumped from last season's ninth-place finish into a third-place tie with Arizona State, this despite sending leading scorer Ryan Anderson and center DeVon Hardin to the NBA.
A 22-9 record with two victories over conference champion Washington would seem to be enough to get the Bears into the tournament without another victory.
But how many teams the Pac-10 as a whole sends remains in question.
Said Bears Coach Mike Montgomery: "There are a number of people who might need two or three wins, get to the finals to say, 'Yeah we're 9-9, but look where we are' "
USC finished 9-9, as did Arizona, which had victories over No. 11 Kansas and No. 12 Gonzaga during nonconference play.
USC has forward Leonard Washington back at full strength from a sprained ankle. He will play tonight even though he was held out of practice Tuesday because of an academic issue.
That will help, and Gibson knows USC has only one sure way in: "We have to win every game from here on out."