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For USC and Kevin O'Neill, an unforgettable day of forgiveness

The Trojans' coach, suspended for their Pac-10 tournament game after a late-night altercation with an Arizona booster, is reinstated just in time to learn that his team is headed to the NCAA tournament, as one of the last at-large entries.

March 13, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Coach Kevin O'Neill huddles with his USC players during a Pac-10 game against Washington last week.
Coach Kevin O'Neill huddles with his USC players during a Pac-10 game… (Joe Nicholson / US Presswire )

Every morning, Kevin O'Neill, a devout Catholic, attends Mass and asks for forgiveness.

He went Sunday knowing USC officials had essentially granted as much, reinstating him as USC's basketball coach after an altercation had put his job at risk.

And that afternoon, he stood at the back of the team's locker room, smiling, watching his players celebrate wildly when they learned they'd advanced to the NCAA tournament.

It was a win-win day for USC, and especially for O'Neill.

The Trojans (19-14) will face Virginia Commonwealth (23-11) in a first-round game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, and O'Neill, who served a one-game suspension for an altercation in a hotel lobby Thursday night with an Arizona booster, will coach them.

If USC wins, it will be the 11th-seeded team in the Southwest Regional and take on sixth-seeded Georgetown (21-10) in Chicago on Friday.

It's quite an achievement for a rebuilding program that was hemorrhaging players and recruits following an NCAA investigation that resulted in numerous sanctions, including a self-imposed postseason ban last season.

"Last year, that was hard, real hard to go through," senior guard Donte Smith said. "When we heard about KO [this weekend], that was even harder."

O'Neill, in his second season, opened his address to the media by apologizing for his actions.

"My job is not to screw up again," he later added, off to the side, "and I realize if I do screw up again, it will be a serious situation."

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a statement that O'Neill faces additional "institutional discipline," including a fine. O'Neill said that discipline will remain private.

"I'm relieved we got into the tournament," O'Neill said, "but I'm more relieved for the players than for me because they deserved it."

This is USC's 16th NCAA tournament appearance.

"It's a dream come true to celebrate with the people you care about," senior forward Alex Stepheson said.

USC's players and coaches jumped and screamed and tackled one another when they saw their school's name announced Sunday.

"It was something I'll always remember for the rest of my life," junior guard Jio Fontan said.

USC has made the tournament the last four times it has been eligible, reaching the regional semifinals in 2009.

This season, USC was one of the last teams to earn an at-large bid.

"I was pretty positive we were going to make it, but once I saw our name on the screen, it was one of the best feelings I've ever had," junior forward Nikola Vucevic said.

Said O'Neill: "Whoever got the field expanded to 68, we thank them very much, obviously."

The Trojans' tournament resume was boosted by five wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index — including Arizona, Texas and Washington — and a schedule ranked 39th nationally in terms of strength.

"People saw we're a team that can compete with anybody in the country," Vucevic said.

The team will practice Monday morning and is scheduled to take a charter flight at noon.

"Our goal is to win the national title," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said he's watched the Rams play about five times, including when they beat UCLA in New York on Nov. 26, and he compared their up-tempo style to Washington's.

"They're what I would call a team of runs," O'Neill said. "They shoot a tremendous amount of threes. They're athletic, they press, they're deep, they're well-coached."

Speaking of coaching, USC's players will rally around their own in this tournament.

"KO's our coach," senior guard and co-captain Marcus Simmons said. "Everybody loves him. He's like a father figure to everybody on this team. We just want to play hard for him.'

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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