Basketball: Tuesday practice report

USC (18-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) plays Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament at the Staples Center Thursday. 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 Bears -- and whatever else may come after that:

In it to win it

When tournament season approaches in college basketball, emotions tend to be on high and coaches' sleep sessions tend to be on low. Know what else is typically on high?

Cliches. March is, in many ways, cliche season. In USC's case, these Trojans are 'in it to win it' -- so says junior forward Nikola Vucevic.

Yes, the Trojans are happy they get to compete in the Pac-10 Tournament after being banned from competition last year because of sanctions. No, they're not happy just to compete.

"We don’t want to just be in it, and say, ‘Whatever happens, happens,’” Vucevic said Tuesday. “We want to be in it and win and try to go as far as we can.”

Along with Vucevic, senior guard Marcus Simmons is one of two Trojans on this year's team to also play during the 2008-2009 team's tournament run that vaulted them all the way through to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Simmons was short and to the point about the team's plans for the Pac-10 tourney.

"We’ve just gotta go out there and try to win every game," he said Tuesday. "If we lose this game, we’re probably gonna end up in the NIT, so we want to go out there and just prove a point: we belong in the NCAA."

Simmons talks award

Simmons won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors Monday, one of three Trojans to get a significant conference award. Vucevic was named All-Pac-10 First Team and point guard Maurice Jones was named to the All-Freshman Team.

Simmons said Tuesday he found out about his award when he woke up Monday morning. As soon as he looked at his phone, he said, he had 20-plus congratulatory text messages and he received more throughout the day.

Simmons refused to credit himself when asked how he felt about receiving the award, although he did concede that making a name for himself as a defensive player could help him establish his basketball career later on.

"It’s not only me," he said. "It’s my teammates. They help me out a lot, fighting over screens and stunting. We play team defense and I’m just glad I got the award."

As for Kevin O'Neill, the coach spent a good portion of time crusading Simmons' case for the award over the last few weeks, so he was fairly pleased when his fellow coaches voted his way.

"I think he deserved it," O'Neill said Tuesday of Simmons, adding he thought a number of his other players could have also deserved awards, including Jio Fontan and Donte Smith. "Marcus has done an unbelievable job for us defensively."

Cal's big men are big threats

The two Bears forwards -- Harper Kamp and Markuri Sanders-Frison -- have had quite a bit of success against the Trojans this year, putting up a combined average of 35 points per game in the teams' two meeting.

Neither player is particularly physically imposing compared to the Aziz N'Diaye and Derrick Williamses of the world, with Kamp standing a generous 6-8 and Sanders-Frison listed at 6-7, but both are smart when playing in the low block, and both are effective.

“They’re good players," Vucevic said Tuesday. "They’re hard to guard because they’re shorter than us, they have lower bases so they can go under us and stuff. It’s easier for us to guard taller guys because we can block their shots and stuff and we’re the same height."

So Vucevic attributes it to height. O'Neill simply attributes it to to speed. Forward Alex Stepheson? He says they're just good.

"They’re good big men," Stepheson said. "They played well against us. I don’t think me and Nik played particularly well those games and we’re gonna come ready Thursday, but they’re good players."