USC forward Nikola Vucevic, going against UCLA forward Reeves Nelson in… (Gary A. Vasquez / US Presswire )
About 70 boosters had lunch with USC Coach Kevin O'Neill Monday in a Galen Center ballroom.
It was their fourth and final lunch with him this season, and at its end one booster presented O'Neill with a bottle of 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
"May you enjoy this when the season is over," the man said, "and may the season be over sometime in April."
Steering USC to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament — the national semifinals are April 2 and the championship game April 4 — couldn't be further from O'Neill's mind.
Right now, he's just hoping his team is among the field of 68 that will be playing in mid-March.
At 17-12 overall and 9-7 in Pacific 10 Conference play, USC enters Thursday's game against Washington State (18-10, 8-8) at Pullman probably needing to sweep the Washington schools and win two games in the Pac-10 tournament to be considered on the "bubble" for an at-large NCAA bid.
Some observers believe the Trojans, winners of four in a row and five of six, deserve to be on that bubble now.
"They're back in the conversation," said Seth Davis, a national college basketball reporter for Sports Illustrated and CBS. "That alone is impressive."
USC's four wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index as formulated by independent expert Jerry Palm are more than any Pac-10 team and more than most "bubble" teams nationwide.
Those wins are against Arizona (RPI 17), UCLA (35), Tennessee (34) and Texas (14.) However, USC plays in a conference ranked seventh in RPI, just ahead of Conference USA and the Atlantic 10.
It helps that the Trojans' strength of schedule, boosted by strong nonconference games, is ranked 52nd nationally, and that USC is 3-1 against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25.
But the Trojans' bad losses may do them in when the NCAA selection committee considers their resume. USC has six losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 in RPI, three to teams ranked outside the top 200.
"They have no realistic hope as an at-large team," Palm wrote in an e-mail. "Way too many very bad losses."
Davis said the teams USC will compete against for an at-large bid won't have as many bad losses, but that if USC can sweep this week and reach the Pac-10 tournament final, "I think they have a good shot."
The Trojans, whose RPI is 81, contend that most of their bad losses — to Rider, Bradley and Texas Christian — came in November before junior guard Jio Fontan became eligible and when senior forward Alex Stepheson was playing with a broken hand.
"They should look into that … look to see when we were a complete team," Fontan said.
But even as a complete team, USC did lose twice to Oregon (RPI 143) and once to Oregon State (RPI 228).
O'Neill said USC is night-and-day different than it was at the start of the season. Will the committee consider that? He can only hope.
"The committee is pretty smart," he said. "They do this year-round. If we deserve to be in, we'll be in."