USC (18-13, 10-8) enters the Pac-10 Tournament as the first conference team out of the likely NCAA Tournament field, but the Trojans fortunately have enough time left to prove themselves this week in advance of Selection Sunday.
Projected to finish sixth in the conference entering the season, USC tied for fourth with Cal and won the fourth seed in the Pac-10 tourney based on conference tiebreakers. The Trojans started off the season pretty badly, actually, going 4-4 in their first eight games against zero likely NCAA tournament teams. But when December started, USC kicked it into gear, slamming No. 20 Texas at home and, two weeks later, barely losing to No. 3 Kansas on the road. A win over No. 18 Tennessee followed, and the Trojans finished off the year with a convincing small-school win, an overtime loss against conference favorite Washington and a win over Washington State, now a team just about as much on the bubble as they are.
From there, things went back and forth. USC beat UCLA impressively, then lost at Oregon and Oregon State. The low point on the year came midway through February when the Trojans fell to 13-12 and 5-7 in conference after losing at home to the Ducks. But the Trojans have won five of six since then and are now apparently peaking at the right time, as multiple players said in practice last week before the Washington trip.
Let's recap what's led to that peak as we approach Thursday's tournament opener against Cal:
First, let's get this out of the way. Kevin O'Neill doesn't have a young team. He starts two juniors and three seniors and brings his only two freshmen in the rotation off the bench.
Sure, his team may be slightly inexperienced at the Pac-10 level, with three of the five starters -- Jio Fontan, Donte Smith and Alex Stepheson -- having transferred midway through their college careers, but his team is actually fairly old, as you would expect for a coach who has spent a good portion of his career in the NBA.
He caters toward the older, more mature player -- toward the even-keeled guys who want to be coached, both by O'Neill and crack assistant Bob Cantu. And, in what might be his most impressive accomplishment simply because of the length of his 21-month tenure, O'Neill has assembled a roster of only players who fit that description -- forcing out anybody who didn't.
BIGGEST SURPRISE SO FAR
Smith has developed into a legitimate outside threat and a starter over the course of this season -- this, after he was essentially a non-factor in Pac-10 play last year and thought to be an afterthought on this year's squad.
Smith is USC's best shooter and perhaps its most vocal player, the only Trojan who really wears his emotions on his sleeve. It's weird, actually. O'Neill's squad is made up of six quiet on-court guys and Smith.
After he caught fire in USC's first game against Cal in January, the Bears keyed in on him in the Bay Area last month and left freshman point guard Maurice Jones open a number of times for big shots.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT(S) SO FAR
The four freshmen in USC's 2010 recruiting class have not played nearly as big of roles as was expected. Only Jones plays big minutes, and he comes off the bench. Forward Garrett Jackson is averaging 3.6 points in 11.5 minutes per game. Curtis Washington has played 11 total minutes, and guard Bryce Jones -- the supposed 'jewel' of the class -- decided to transfer in January.
O'Neill said back in October before the season started that he would need his freshmen to be key contributors to have any hope of experiencing a successful season.
They haven't, really.
WHAT THE TROJANS NEED TO ACCOMPLISH
Right now, the Trojans are out of the tournament. They will still be out if they beat Cal in their first game (Thursday, noon) and lose in the next round, with that opponent likely being Arizona (Friday, 6 p.m.). But if they can somehow manage an upset win over the Wildcats, that will put them right in the mix of NCAA tourney selection, and a win over UCLA or Washington or Washington St. in the finals (Saturday, 3 p.m.) would obviously give them an automatic ticket.
Obviously USC's lack of depth hurts in what is potentially a three-games-in-three-days conference tournament, but O'Neill's defensive system is actually well-suited to pulling out back-to-back victories?
Because, when you're playing 120 minutes of win-or-go-home in a 54-hour period, your shots won't necessarily fall in each of those games. Teams will have offensive hiccups, and, if the Trojans are lucky, the hiccups could occur against them. But USC doesn't have to defensively hiccup.
Three straight games of solid-to-great defensive performances will probably equal an NCAA tournament bid.