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USC gets a tough draw to start conference play Wednesday

Trojans play host to the Washington Huskies, the preseason favorites to win the Pacific 10 Conference title.

December 28, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

In October, the Washington Huskies were a landslide choice as the Pacific 10 Conference's top dogs heading into the men's basketball season.

And Coach Lorenzo Romar knew exactly what that meant.

Nothing.

"I wish they would give us the conference championship because of the voting," he said on the day the results were revealed.

Instead, the title will be determined in a conference season that begins Wednesday, and the Huskies didn't draw a slouch for their opener. Washington (8-3) gets USC (8-5), which has won four of its last five games, including victories over nationally ranked Texas and Tennessee.

Washington has looked unbeatable at times, averaging 99.5 points per game in its victories. But in their losses, the Huskies averaged only 66.7 points.

USC was mistake-prone at the start, falling to Rider by 20 points at home, then losing close games to Bradley and Nebraska.

However, the Trojans have been a different team since junior guard Jio Fontan became eligible. Fontan is averaging a team-high 16.3 points and shooting 54.5%. With him in the lineup, USC's only loss was by two points at No. 3-ranked Kansas.

With this newfound momentum, Washington has become a measuring stick for a Trojans team that believes it can win a conference championship.

"We want to be ranked, so we have to go through them," senior guard Marcus Simmons said. "And they're the best team in the conference, hands down."

USC was the only team last season to sweep Washington, which won the Pac-10 tournament and advanced to a regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament. At the Galen Center, USC's win was by 26 points.

Which now means about as much as that preseason poll.

Washington's high-powered offense includes four starters back from last season. USC has mostly replaced veterans with freshmen.

"It will be interesting to see how our younger guys react to their pressure," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said. "If we don't control tempo, we don't win. We know that. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing."

Junior point guard Isaiah Thomas is Washington's top player, and Simmons will probably be assigned to guard him.

That could be the key individual matchup because Thomas is averaging 15.8 points and Simmons seems to thrive on tough assignments.

In fact, when he guards players of lesser regard, Simmons said he sometimes lets up.

"I'm not going to lie," Simmons said. "When I'm guarding somebody who is not that great of a scorer, I get lackadaisical."

Said O'Neill: "It's just who he is. And it happens in every game. He's our best defender, and I think it's almost an insult to him if he's not on the best player."

Looking ahead

O'Neill said USC has unofficial plans to play in a tournament in Las Vegas next season that includes North Carolina, South Carolina and Nevada Las Vegas. Also on the tentative schedule are games against Texas Tech in Dallas, North Carolina State in Charlotte, N.C., and home games against Texas Christian and Kansas.

USC will play San Diego State in each of the next two seasons, once at the Galen Center and the other time on the road.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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