USC takes hardened approach into NCAA tournament

The Trojans, challenged by an assistant coach to show some toughness, responded with five straight wins to reach the Big Dance. They will play Boston College in a Midwest Regional game on Friday.

March 16, 2009|Chris Foster

USC's basketball team is beef-jerky tough, something for Boston College to chew on.

Those inside the Trojans' locker room are certain about that after facing "win-or-go-home" situations the last week, freshman forward DeMar DeRozan said. They found ways to win the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and now go to Minneapolis to face the Eagles in the NCAA tournament.

The starting point for that journey was two weeks ago during a film session before a game against Oregon, when assistant coach Phil Johnson had a harsh assessment of the team.

"He got up and told us we were not a tough team and it was time to show people how tough USC was," guard Daniel Hackett said. "We did by winning five consecutive games."

A sixth would be on Friday against the Eagles (22-11), who finished tied for sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and have a blue-chip victory over then-No. 1 North Carolina on the road and a red-faced loss to Harvard three days later at home. The Eagles lost four of their last six regular-season games, then lost to Duke in the second round of the ACC tournament.

That puts Boston College in the what-gives category with the Trojans (21-12), who lost six of seven games in February, then gritted out three games in three days to win the conference tournament.

"They can kill you, but they can't eat you," Coach Tim Floyd said about his team's overcoming its stumbles.

Food for thought.

The turnaround, though, came after Johnson gave the Trojans something to chew on.

"Coach Johnson is like Papa Angry," forward Taj Gibson said. "He doesn't say much often, but when he lashes out, it wakes you up. He turned off the Oregon film and just said, 'You think you're tough, but are you really tough?' Guys snapped out of it."

USC swept Oregon and Oregon State to finish the regular season.

"We took that as a challenge," guard Dwight Lewis said. "Someone saying you're not tough, when you know you are? We wanted to prove we were a tough team and we had heart."

USC outlasted California, UCLA and Arizona State to win the conference tournament.

"Obviously, when you had to take the path we had to take to get there, you're just thrilled to be in this field," Floyd said. But, he added, "At this point, that's yesterday's news. Put the DVD your mama made under the bed and start getting ready for the next one, Boston College."

Yet the Trojans' chances in the tournament are embedded with that lesson.

"Coach Johnson was an assistant at Arizona and he compared us to the team that won the national title [in 1996-97]," Gibson said. "He said that team was in the same position we were in, even worse. Those guys came together and toughed it out. We've been doing that, and it's been working."

The Trojans are the 10th-seeded team in the Midwest Regional, after being a sixth-seeded team last season. The numbers don't matter, players said.

USC was bounced by Kansas State in the first round last season.

"You're going to play a real good team at some point," Lewis said. "Might as well throw the ball up and play one now."

The Trojans, who reached a third consecutive NCAA tournament for the first time in the program's history, have that experience to draw on. This is the third NCAA tournament for Hackett, Gibson, Lewis and forward Keith Wilkinson. They were part of the USC team that reached the East Regional semifinals two seasons ago as well as being on the team that lost to Kansas State.

That will help newbies, like DeRozan, who has elevated his game and his NBA prospects in recent weeks. He was selected the outstanding player in the conference tournament.

DeRozan averaged 21 points in three tournament games, including 25 points against Arizona State in the title game.

"When the Pac-10 started I was feeling comfortable with my game," DeRozan said. "By the time the Pac-10 tournament started, I felt like it was my sophomore year in college.

"This is everything you dream about. It's intense and it's fun. I'm just looking forward to this next game."

Where the Trojans will again learn whether they are indeed tough enough. "For the older guys, with the way we went out last year, that's all the motivation we need," Lewis said. "We've been facing one-and-done situations for three games now. We had to win to get in. We don't want to waste all that hard work we did getting here."




USC (21-12) vs.

Boston College (22-11)

How they got here: USC -- Won the Pacific 10 Conference tournament. Boston College -- Earned an at-large bid after finishing tied for sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Common opponents: San Francisco -- USC won, 74-69, Boston College won, 84-62; Georgia Tech -- USC won, 76-57, Boston College won, 80-76 (OT) and 67-66.

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