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USC BASKETBALL

Trojans looking for a win — or two — in Pac-10 tournament

USC probably needs to beat California in a quarterfinal game Thursday and get a victory Friday to earn an NCAA tournament bid.

March 09, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC's Nikola Vucevic, left, celebrates with teammates Garrett Jackson, center, and James Dunleavy, following the Trojans' victory over Texas on Dec. 5. USC hopes it will be celebrating again on Saturday night.
USC's Nikola Vucevic, left, celebrates with teammates Garrett Jackson,… (Jason Redmond / Associated…)

The idea come conference tournament time in college basketball: win and you're in.

USC just wishes it knew exactly how many wins it needs — aside from the obvious answer of three — to earn one of 68 spots in the NCAA tournament.

"I have no idea," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said Tuesday.

If fourth-seeded USC loses in Thursday's quarterfinal round against fifth-seeded California in the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center, its chances are reduced to none.

"Beating Cal is an important step," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. "I think the committee might view that as an elimination game."

It should be close. USC, 18-13 overall and 10-8 in conference, and California (17-13, 10-8) split their two-game season series with each decided by three points or fewer.

Beyond that, the general consensus is that the Trojans, winners of five of six, need one more win, likely in the semifinals against No. 16-ranked and top-seeded Arizona, to be on the NCAA "bubble."

Of course, USC could stop the bubble talk by winning three games in three days to win the Pac-10 tournament and its automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, as it did two years ago.

But with a seven-man rotation, the Trojans lack the manpower for such an improbable run.

Still, USC's paradoxical resume, with the team's impressive wins and hideous losses, puts the Trojans on the edge for a bid right now.

ESPN's "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi currently has USC among his "First Four Out."

But USC claims it should be "in" because five of its wins are against top-50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index and it's the only team in the Pac-10 to beat the conference's top three teams, UCLA, Arizona and Washington.

"The problem with them isn't their wins," said Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com senior basketball writer. "It's their losses."

Oh, those.

USC has six losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 in RPI, three of them to teams ranked outside the top 200.

The Trojans say of those losses, half came when senior forward Alex Stepheson was playing with a broken hand and before junior guard Jio Fontan became eligible.

"Look at them since they got Jio and judge them since they got Jio," said Jeff Goodman, FOXSports.com senior college basketball writer. "It's not the same team."

The committee should consider that, Goodman said. Will it? Hard to say.

"Let's say they beat Cal and lose to Arizona," Goodman said, "I think they'll be in the NIT and I'm not sure that it's fair."

Still, as Parrish said, "Most bubble teams right now don't have USC's wins, but they also don't have USC's losses. You can't weigh one without the other."

Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek said after the Trojans swept the Sun Devils this season that USC is "certainly good enough to be an NCAA team. The Pac-10 doesn't get enough credit and USC isn't getting enough credit as a team."

But Goodman and Parrish each said that bubble teams in the Big East and Big 12 conferences would likely earn a spot over USC because those leagues are considered better this season, making it crucial that USC beats Arizona.

If USC does, it will advance to the Pac-10 finals. And if it does that, said freshman guard Maurice Jones, "We should be in."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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