Bubbling USC makes NCAA pitch after loss

Forward Nikola Vucevic noted how different it was with fiery USC coach Kevin O'Neill suspended -- there was much less yelling coming from the sideline.

But after taking over for O'Neill on the bench, assistant coach Bob Cantu said as loud and clear as he could that the Trojans belonged in the NCAA tournament after the their 67-62 loss to top-seeded Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament semifinals

"I think we had a good showing tonight, and anybody that was watching the game tonight would have to call this a good loss," Cantu said afterward. "If you were on the committee and we were on the border, you'd have to say, 'Well, this team played well without their head coach.' We feel they can compete in an NCAA tournament."

USC fell to 19-14 after the hard-fought loss, and twice Cantu mentioned that he thought the Trojans could compete with any team in the country. He listed off wins against Texas, Arizona, UCLA and Tennessee.

"My point is we have some great wins," Cantu said. "Everybody's saying we've got bad losses. I personally think great wins mean more than bad losses do when you look at the big picture."

Cantu's use of the bully pulpit came after O'Neill earlier in the week said it would be a "waste of time" pontificating about the team's at-large chances with the selection committee.

O'Neill actually spoke with Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles during the game and said, "The people that make those decisions are smart people. They understand where this is at. I think they'll judge our team based on what we do on the court."

Off the court, O'Neill has apologized for his confrontation with an Arizona booster on Friday that led to his suspension for the tournament and the Trojans losing their strongest voice at a most critical time in the season.

Yes, Joe Lunardi as of right now has USC getting into the NCAA tournament as one of the "last four in." But USC ultimately got bounced from the tournament, and that has left them teetering.

Moving onto the championship game are two teams merely looking to further solidify their seeding in the NCAA tournament, though there is also plenty of motivation for preseason favorite Washington to prove itself against regular-season champion Arizona.

"They got us last time, and we want some revenge," Washington guard Isaiah Thomas said afterward. "They're a great team, and we'll be ready for them. It's going to be a fun game tomorrow."

But really, this tournament for the conference as a whole was about seeing which team could step forward and grab an at-large bid. Arizona coach Sean Miller took the opportunity after his team's win to talk up the Trojans, even mentioning that they were without transfer guard Jio Fontan until December.

"I told our guys in the locker room after the game I thought this was our best win of the season," Miller said. "The reason is we respect USC a great deal."