USC's Jio Fontan, center, drives past Virginia Commonwealth's… (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images )
Reporting from Dayton, Ohio — Around USC's team hotel for the last two days, the coaching staff believed if the Trojans could beat Virginia Commonwealth, they could beat Georgetown.
There was concern. VCU had a deep team; USC didn't. VCU played run-and-gun; USC couldn't. Controlling tempo, USC knew, would be crucial.
But on Wednesday night, the Trojans didn't look at all ready to control anything, while the Rams, who many said didn't belong in the NCAA tournament, did.
And VCU more than proved its worth by beating USC, 59-46, in the first-round game.
The Rams (24-11) claimed the 11th seeding in the Southwest Regional and advanced to play sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday in Chicago.
Photos: USC vs. Virginia Commonwealth
"They came out and they performed like they wanted it more," USC junior guard Jio Fontan said.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill didn't agree. He said USC just lacked tournament experience.
"For lack of a better word, they're virgin NCAA players," O'Neill said after the Trojans made one field goal in the last nine minutes.
The Trojans (19-15) end their 2010-11 season in a place that seemed unlikely about a month ago when their record was 13-12.
"I'm really proud of our team," O'Neill said, referring to its list of adversity, such as the sanctions and mass departure of players and recruits stemming from an NCAA investigation.
O'Neill also overcame his own adversity after being suspended for one game last week for an off-court altercation.
Still, for as hard as USC fought in the last month to get here, the team, as O'Neill said, "laid an egg" when it arrived.
The Trojans suffered from jitters early, but it was still 22-22 at halftime. After that, USC tried to play run-and-gun, and VCU obliged, going on a 15-5 run, making four quick three-point jumpers.
"That really got us off kilter," O'Neill said.
USC got to within one with 7:51 remaining, but its thin lineup succumbed to foul trouble.
Marcus Simmons, Fontan, Nikola Vucevic — all gone.
VCU closed the game on a 15-3 run, ending USC's 16th appearance in the NCAA tournament.
"Maybe the season caught up to us a little bit," O'Neill said. "Maybe the pressure. I don't know."
2011 NCAA men's basketball championship brackets
Forward Jamie Skeen led the Rams with 16 points. The disparaging categories for USC were offensive rebounds (17-5), turnovers (15-9) and one-for-nine shooting from three-point range.
It might have been junior forward Vucevic's final game for USC. He could declare early to go pro.
He finished with his 22nd double-double of the season, 11 points and 14 rebounds.
"They did a good job on defense," Vucevic said. "They took me out of the game."
O'Neill said Vucevic's decision would come much later. The NBA draft early-entry deadline is April 24. Even if he puts his name in, he can pull it out by June 13.
It definitely was the final game for seniors Alex Stepheson (four points, 11 rebounds), Donte Smith (one point on 0-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc) and Simmons (nine points), the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.
The Trojans will replace Stepheson's size with transfers James Blasczyk (7 feet 1), Dewayne Dedmon (7 feet), and Aaron Fuller (6 feet 6).
Incoming guards Byron Wesley, Alexis Moore and Greg Allen will give the team more depth.
And as with this season, USC again will play a difficult schedule.
There are plans to play in a tournament in Las Vegas and to play Texas Tech, North Carolina State, San Diego State, Kansas, Texas Christian and maybe Duke.
But before then, the Trojans have unofficial summer plans to play five games in 12 days in Brazil against Brazilian pro teams.