Making a Tournament case for USC.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Since none of the bubble hopefuls still floating around seem to want to earn the last few available Tournament spots and none of the committee’s options is extremely appealing, a late-season bloomer in a year like this one can grab people’s attention. After finishing the Pac-10 regular season with a crucial win at schizophrenic Washington, USC should pop up on bubble boards and brackets around the blogosphere this week.
So are there any legs to the growing theory that USC can sneak into the NCAA tournament as the Pac-10’s third/fourth team bid? Absolutely, but not without a win (or two) in the conference’s tournament, which starts Wednesday at the Staples Center in L.A.
It’s not as hard as it would’ve seemed two months ago to make a case for Southern Cal’s NCAA hopes. In fact, their argument, in some ways, is more convincing than Washington’s at this moment (that’s what happens when you are a pre-season conference favorite-turned precarious bubble dweller). Feel free to rag on the Trojans all you want for those horrific losses the team is carrying around (v. Bradley, at TCU, swept by Oregon, at Oregon State), but name a 2011 bubble team that doesn’t have at least four really bad losses at this point in the season? USC separates itself, if just by hair, from the pack with two impressive non-conference wins, a blowout of Texas at the Galen Center and a victory over Tennessee in Knoxville.
A solid conference record of 10-8 in a league that is way, way better than it gets credit for should also help ‘SC. After losing at Arizona and at UCLA consecutively in late January-early February, the Trojans won six out of their final eight conference games, including Saturday’s conquest in Seattle and a win over regular season champion ‘Zona.
Number crunchers won’t be thrilled with USC. Rarely does a team with an RPI as low as 79 get an at-large bid, and ‘SC’s 49th strongest schedule nationally is respectable but not much more than that. But if the ever-mystical “eye test” helps one deserving team earn a spot in this year’s Tournament, it could end up being USC. With a couple more wins in the Pac-10 tourney, streaking through the final month of the season will look good. But no matter what, USC’s talented roster will look even better.
USC’s frontcourt was arguably the most dominant in the conference this season. Versatile big man Nikola Vucevic is a matchup nightmare for opponents at the 4 and 5, and Alex Stepheson is nearly averaging a double-double on the season. There’s your Tournament-caliber frontline.
Point guard Jio Fontan, who sat out most of the non-conference schedule and five of Southern Cal’s losses after transferring from Fordham, is clearly a difference-maker and your Tournament-caliber point guard. Are the Trojans a tournament team with Jio on the floor? That is for the committee to resolve in one week, but what is clear is that USC is a much different squad now than the one that lost to Rider, Nebraska, Bradley, and TCU early in the season.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.