Basketball: Tuesday practice report

USC (17-12, 9-7 in the Pac-10) plays Washington State Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pullman. We'll have a preview of the game Thursday, but here are a few worthwhile nuggets from the Trojans' Tuesday practice in preparation for the Cougars:

Something to play for

At this point last season, heading into the final Pac-10 weekend series of the year on the road, the Trojans were 16-12. This season, heading into the final Pac-10 weekend series on the road, the Trojans are 17-12.

What's the difference this time around?

Well, there's something to play for, of course. Last season, USC self-sanctioned itself from postseason competition, meaning that the final road weekend at Arizona was the Trojans' last of the year, no matter the outcome. Unsurprisingly, with literally nothing to play for besides pride, they lost both those games.

This time, there's plenty up for grabs at Washington State and Washington. If the Trojans win both, they'll probably play themselves right onto the bubble heading into the Pac-10 tournament and give themselves a solid chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney.

Senior guard Marcus Simmons said the situation at hand was "exactly like" the situation two years ago, when USC went into the final weekend with a 16-12 record, swept two home games against the Oregon schools and then won the Pac-10 tournament in a huge surprise, keeping the momentum going all the way through to the second round of the NCAA tourney, where the Trojans lost to eventual NCAA Tournament runner-up Michigan State by five points.

"It means a lot," Simmons said Tuesday of what the availability of postseason play can do for a team. "I told the players the other day: it reminds me of a couple years ago when we started pretty bad and then we picked it up toward the end of the year. And then we had something to play for, the Pac-10 tournament, and then the NCAA.

"It was very, very big for us."

That difference, that something to play for, is evident according to guard Jio Fontan, who couldn't play last year after sitting out after transferring from Fordham but was with the team during practices.

"Practices are different, I feel like," Fontan said after Tuesday's two-hour session. "Not as much by the coaches, but by the players. Our approach to practice is a little bit different. We bring it a little harder, and we haven't given up on our idea of playing in March Madness, so we approach practice like we can still survive so we have to prepare to try and win the next game."

Vucevic for Pac-10 Player of the Year

A week ago it seemed impossible.

Now it's probably within the realm of possibility that USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic could steal away Pac-10 Player of the Year honors from front-runner Derrick Williams of Arizona, after a weekend in which Vucevic led his team to an upset over Williams' Arizona squad and a convincing win over Arizona State, while Williams' Wildcats lost two straight to USC and UCLA.

Williams is still in the lead, and Washington State' Klay Thompson might actually be second, but Vucevic is in the conversation. Actually, Fontan said there shouldn't even be a conversation when asked Tuesday if he thought Vucevic should win the award.

"Oh, by far," Fontan said. "I think it's not even close. You look at the things he's done for our team, he's the most valuable player, as far as our team goes and as far as any player to their own team. I think Derrick Williams is a great player. If he wins obviously nobody's gonna argue that -- he's such a great player too -- but, in the battle at Arizona, Derrick Williams won the battle, but not by as much as the one Nik won here, in my opinion.

"I'm a little biased, of course, but I definitely think Nik's the player of the year in the conference."

A travesty

The crosstown UCLA Bruins are tied for first in the Pac-10 and 21-8 on the season but ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 polls. On the Pac-10 coaches Tuesday morning teleconference, USC coach Kevin O'Neill lashed out a bit about the non-selection, coming to the defense of UCLA coach Ben Howland's squad.

“I can’t believe UCLA is not ranked this week,” O’Neill said. “I believe it’s an absolute travesty.”

Asked about it after practice Tuesday, O'Neill stood by his comments.

"I think they have a good team," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know why they're not ranked. I said that. I don't get it. They deserve to be ranked.

"That's not a big revelation. I think they're probably shocked too."

It does seem the Bruins are qualified to be ranked. They beat the No. 3 team (BYU), the No. 15 team (St. John's, with a 19-9 record) and the No. 18 team (Arizona) this past weekend. They also had close road losses at No. 19 Villanova and No. 2 Kansas and have won 12 of their last 14 games.

O'Neill offered a humorous explanation as to why UCLA was left out of the rankings as the third-highest vote-getting team not in the Top 25.

"It's because we're in the land that time forgot, basketball-wise, unfortunately," O'Neill said.