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USC isn't ready to stop at invitation-only in NCAA tournament

Coming back from sanctions and other struggles, Trojans still aren't content to be 'one-and-done' team as they face Virginia Commonwealth. But it too has something to prove to doubters.

March 15, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC Coach Kevin O'Neill says the Trojans shouldn't be content with just making the NCAA tournament.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill says the Trojans shouldn't be content… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Dayton, Ohio — USC has accomplished what was impossible a year ago and highly improbable a month ago, but the Trojans say they're not satisfied.

And Kevin O'Neill hopes they're telling the truth.

"Our team was so elated to get in [to the NCAA tournament] that I hope they don't think they've reached their goal," USC's coach said Tuesday.

USC (19-14) faces Virginia Commonwealth (23-11) in a first-round game here Wednesday night. The winner will be the 11th-seeded team in the Southwest Regional and play sixth-seeded Georgetown (21-10) in Chicago on Friday.

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USC was banned from postseason play last season and is still recovering from an NCAA investigation that gutted the program. Making the tournament was considered quite an accomplishment. But O'Neill told his players they have overcome too much to settle for just the invitation, and star forward Nikola Vucevic agreed.

"We didn't work to come here and be a one-and-done team," Vucevic said.

Virginia Commonwealth has its own motivation.

The Rams, like USC, were among the last at-large teams to get in, and several critics said there were other more deserving teams.

"Virginia Commonwealth is a tough ballclub," NCAA selection committee Chairman Gene Smith said Monday, defending the bid. "If you watch them play, [they're] one of those teams that a lot of people don't want to play."

VCU Coach Shaka Smart, whose team has three wins against teams with top-50 RPI ratings — including one against UCLA in New York — said he would use the criticism to motivate his players.

"It gives us a certain incentive … with everybody doubting us and not believing that we deserve to be here," VCU guard Bradford Burgess said.

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O'Neill compared VCU's up-tempo, run-and-gun style to Washington's, so he's using the defensive game plan the Trojans used in splitting two games against the Huskies.

"It's a multiple-effort thing where you have to be able to shrink the court and take away the three," O'Neill said of USC's man-to-man defense, which gave up an average of 62.8 points a game this season, the fewest in the Pacific 10 Conference.

Virginia Commonwealth led the Colonial Athletic Assn. with averages of 8.2 three-point field goals, 8.5 steals and a turnover margin of 3.3 per game.

The Rams don't have a frontline that can match USC's 6-foot-10 tandem of Vucevic and senior Alex Stepheson, but VCU has Jamie Skeen, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior who will focus on trying to limit Vucevic to less than his 17.3-point, 10.2-rebound averages.

"First, I heard he's an NBA prospect, so that excites me already," Skeen said. "But what I have to do is limit his touches and make sure he don't get deep post position. That's for sure because he can finish with either hand."

Smart plays nine players at least 10 minutes per game; O'Neill plays seven — and in most games just six.

As for experience, USC has four players who have played — barely — in an NCAA tournament, while VCU's four seniors have been part of 98 wins, one CAA title, one CAA tournament title and four postseason appearances, including two NCAA bids.

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USC's seniors would argue what the team lacks in experience, it makes up for in adversity it has overcome.

Which is why it wants to overstay its NCAA tournament welcome.

"We're not here just to be here," USC senior guard Donte Smith said. "We're here to make some noise in this tournament."

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