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Nikola Vucevic takes on a leadership role for USC, in his inimitable style

The Trojans' junior forward keeps things loose with his sense of humor, but he's been all business on the court this season, as his averages of 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds attest.

March 15, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC junoir forward Nikola Vucevic has 21 double-doubles this season.
USC junoir forward Nikola Vucevic has 21 double-doubles this season. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Reporting from Dayton, Ohio — As USC's charter flight took off from Los Angeles about noon Monday, the band members, seated near the rear of the Boeing 737 jet, began singing an a cappella version of "Conquest," USC's battle cry.

It's their tradition for road-game travel, whether commercial or charter, and USC's song girls and spirit leaders joined in, making the Trojans' trip here for an NCAA tournament first-round game against Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday feel a little homier.

And there to lighten the mood, when he was free to move about the cabin, was forward Nikola Vucevic.

USC's double-double machine — with 21 this season — stretched out with a row to himself but also walked down the aisle and passed out pillows.

"Here's one for you," the 6-foot-10 junior said, placing a pillow behind a reporter's head. "It's nice and soft."

He then hid behind his seat and playfully shouted the names of coaches to see if they'd turn around.

Vucevic got up again and walked past a USC official filling out a bracket in Monday's edition of The Times.

"Are you taking us to the Final Four?" Vucevic asked.

"Of course," the official responded. "The question is, are you taking us to the Final Four."

"Of course," he said, straight-faced.

The last time Vucevic rode a USC charter flight headed to an NCAA tournament site, it was 2009 and he was an unknown, quiet 18-year-old freshman.

"Now look at him, he'll never stop talking," joked senior guard Donte Smith, who was on that flight.

But Vucevic, who averages 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds, is now a leader too.

"It's a different feeling," Vucevic said. "My first year . . . there were so many good players on the team that I was just glad to be a part of it. There was not any pressure. I didn't even know if I was going to play or not."

Vucevic played four minutes in USC's first-round win against Boston College and 22 in its second-round loss to Michigan State.

But after an exodus of recruits and players following an NCAA investigation, he was thrust into a new role his sophomore season.

He has grown comfortable in it, able to make (occasionally funny) jokes, but don't take his lighthearted persona to mean he's not excited or focused. Like the rest of the team, he slept little Sunday night after learning the Trojans had advanced to the NCAA tournament, too excited to snooze.

He's looking to recover from two recent poor performances. If he does, USC might be able to book a flight to Chicago for a second-round matchup against sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday.

"You just have to forget those two games," he said. "I know what I do well. I know what I can do when I'm confident."

Bobby's brackets

Perhaps no one at USC was more thrilled to earn an NCAA tournament bid than associate head coach Bob Cantu, whose 37th birthday fell on Selection Sunday.

Cantu, who will be making his fifth NCAA tournament appearance in his 10th season at USC, said it was his best birthday present to date because "this was the first time I didn't know we were in for sure."

Cantu was nicknamed "Bobby Brackets" by the coaching staff for his nonstop agonizing over whether USC was in or out in the last few weeks. His text message after USC got in: "Bobby brackets is dancing on his bday!!!!"

Johnson to call game

Sportscaster Gus Johnson, known for his thrilling, late-game announcing style, is scheduled to call USC's game Wednesday along with Len Elmore. The game will be televised on TruTV and broadcast on 710 radio.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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