USC winning on love for the game

They teach it to you pretty early in your journalism career. Somewhere, up high in the game story, there should be a sentence or two putting the win or loss into context.

How many games out of first place are they now? How many games left are there? What is the team playing for? That kind of thing.

It's usually an easy thing to do. Just check the conference stats, add a win or loss and artfully (hopefully) sneak the sentence in there.

But the USC men's basketball team is reminding us of a lesson we all slowly forget the higher up the sporting world's food chain we get.

Yes, they have a stated goal of winning the regular season Pacific-10 championship because that's the highest goal they can achieve after the university self-imposed sanctions on the program in early January, barring it from the postseason.

Yes, that goal is still in reach after the Trojans completed their first season-sweep of UCLA since 2004 with a 68-64 win Sunday at the Galen Center. Officially, USC (15-9, 7-5) is just two games back of conference leader California (17-8, 9-4) with six games left to play.

But that isn't the kind of goal that can sustain a team's soul for an entire season. That makes players push through a long week of practice or find the energy for one more round of wind sprints.

That kind of fire has to be generated from love.

Love of the game. Love of your teammates. Love of competing.

USC clearly has that.

``We like playing with each other,'' junior forward Alex Stepheson said. ``We're doing it not just for the Pac-10 title but for each other as well.

``The winning is huge, the Pac-10 title is huge too, but we just want to be out there playing. We don't have a postseason so every minute really means something to us.''

It's pretty simple really, but so easy to lose sight of when so much about college basketball is about the payoff in March, when the country goes mad for the NCAA tournament and millions of dollars are generated through television rights.

You forget that every one of the players who took the court Sunday night started off playing at the park, with nothing at stake, because they just had a thing for playing basketball.

After the game, us media types were asking all the USC players what it means for the program to sweep UCLA, what it's like to finally beat the Bruins at Galen Center (where UCLA had been 3-0), and how badly they want to win the Pac-10 regular season title.

Dwight Lewis, a senior having by far the best season of his career at USC, shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

``I don't know what it means for the program (to sweep UCLA) but I know what it means for us,'' he said ``It's a good feeling. We're all happy right now. We'll celebrate this win tonight and probably tomorrow night as well, then get to work on Tuesday for the good games coming up this weekend.''

Are there still regrets that the season is over after six more games? Of course.

Would they feel better about things if they won the regular season title? Maybe a little.

But for once, a cliché is actually the best way of explaining things:

``It is what it is,'' Lewis said. ``Of course we wish we could see what we could do in the postseason, but we don't have it. So it is what it is. We can't go back and change it, all we can do now is try and win as many as we can and see what happens at the end.''

The end, as they all know, is six games away on March 6 in Tucson, Arizona.

There will be a buzzer, then handshakes, and a postgame talk in the locker room.

The flight home will likely be a little weird. Or not. Depending on how deeply anyone wants to think about it.

But at the end of it all, is a simple reminder.

``You just have to love playing basketball,'' Lewis said. ``It takes a lot of hard work to get to this level, especially to a big Pac-10 school. It'd be hard to get here without loving to play the game.''

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com