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CHRIS DUFRESNE ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

USC, Pac-10 bust Obama's bracket, and his chops

Trojans poke fun at the president after a 72-55 win over Boston College that helps conference go 5-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The chief executive pegged the Pac-10 at 1-5.

March 21, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

MINNEAPOLIS — USC guard Dwight Lewis looked up from his locker-room chair at a stadium named after a former vice president and took a shot at the current executive branch.

Like a lot shots USC attempted Friday, this one was all net.

"I guess we messed President Obama's bracket up," Lewis cracked from deep inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Barack Obama, in his mock offering to ESPN, had USC losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament and the Pacific 10 Conference going 1-5.

Obama's numbers were officially flip-flopped after USC blew Boston College back to Beantown with its 72-55 win in the Midwest Regional.

The Pac-10 is 5-1 after two days of the tournament and USC is 1-0 and headed for a second-round Sunday showdown against Michigan State.

After two wins to close the regular season, three straight victories in the Pac-10 tournament and Friday's first-round romp, USC is now officially too hot to touch.

A Michigan State assistant coach, advance scouting USC-BC, folded his notebook at the end of the game after muttering, "I thought BC was going to win."

He was joined by millions of others, including one leader of a sovereign state.

This, of course, isn't the same USC team that muddled through much of the season and went 1-6 in February.

A presidential aide might have tipped Obama off about the emergence of USC's new defense secretary, Marcus Simmons, a long, lean, lanky guard who lately has been rattling a lot of cages.

Simmons took only one shot against Boston College -- and missed it. He finished with twice as many fouls (four) as points and played only 17 minutes.

Yet, the 6-foot-6 sophomore set the defensive, physical tone against Boston College's 6-1 star guard Tyrese Rice, who was taken out of the game from the 14:39 mark in the first half until the final, meaningless minutes.

Here's looking down at you, kid.

Rice finished with nine points, only two after he scored seven within the game's first six minutes.

Rice is Boston College's carburetor. He makes everything go. He averaged 17 points a game this season but is capable, as he did last year against North Carolina, of scoring 46.

Simmons didn't do it alone, but he did it first. Rice, at times, had Simmons talking to himself. He also suckered him into those four fouls.

"He's a great player," Simmons said of Rice. "He's got so many moves. He got me in foul trouble in the second half, he's so crafty in everything he does."

To supplement Simmons, USC also threw 6-6 Marcus Johnson and the 6-5 Lewis at Rice. All Rice saw were gangly arms and legs.

But it has been Simmons' responsibility the last few weeks to initiate contact against the opponent's top scorer.

Slowed by an ankle injury earlier in the season, Simmons started to emerge in February when he played 22 minutes at California. He logged 32, 38 and 21 minutes in last weekend's Pac-10 tournament sweep, tormenting to varying degrees guards Jerome Randle (Cal), Darren Collison (UCLA) and Derek Glasser (Arizona State).

"It's his size, his length and his motor," USC Coach Tim Floyd said of Simmons. "He's 6-5, 6-6, but he has the feet of a 5-10 kid. When you have a guy playing like that it makes everyone else play defense."

Simmons had to crank the volume up to 10 against Rice.

"He's probably the best guard I've guarded," Simmons said. "In the second half, I was getting frustrated. Coach told me to keep the pressure on him, we've got other guys to defend him."

Simmons left the game shortly after picking up his fourth foul with 12: 21 left, with Lewis taking up the defensive slack the rest of the way.

Lewis credits Simmons for making everyone else pick up their intensity.

"He's been doing that the latter part of the season, taking out their best player," Lewis said. "He did that tonight."

Lewis, with his length, was equally effective.

By the time Rice made his first basket since early in the first half, a short jumper with 1:50 left, the game was over.

Rice's basket cut the Trojans' lead to 12.

"In the second half, I think they hunkered down a little bit tighter on defense and made things a little tough," Rice admitted.

Lewis said the mission against Rice was to keep a long arm in his face and a torso on his chest.

"Body him up a little bit," Lewis said. "Let him know we're there. I don't think he was getting frustrated. He's a great player, but I do think we were making it tough on him. He understood no basket was easy for him."

With Taj Gibson shooting 10-for-10 from the field, and DeMar DeRozan finally looking like an NBA lottery pick, and Lewis nailing three-pointers from the corner, and Simmons clamping down on the perimeter, USC has it in mind to mess up a few more brackets.

"We're playing our best basketball at the right time," Lewis said. "I don't think our run is over yet."

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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