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February 21, 2008

An NCAA berth in doubt, USC focuses on Oregon

An NCAA Tournament berth seemed like a foregone conclusion, after USC reeled off its four-game January winning streak. The Trojans were 4-3 in Pac-10 play, had defeated UCLA at Pauley Pavilion and were no doubt playing their best ball of the year.

With six games remaining before the conference tournament, things are less certain for USC. The team stands 6-6 in the Pac-10, in a three-way tie for fourth place. There is no timeline for Daniel Hackett's return, and with him either out of the lineup or limited -- by a stress fracture in his lower back, hip pointer and torn oblique -- the Trojans have won only two of the past five games.

Earlier this season, coach Tim Floyd and his players had pointed to pre-conference games against Kansas and Memphis, as close losses that should bolster their case for the NCAA Tournament. Now they have bigger worries.

"We've still got to get wins," sophomore guard Dwight Lewis said. "We can't hang our hat on playing those teams."

Tonight, they face Oregon at home. The Trojans needed 26 points from Hackett last month to top the Ducks in Eugene.

During USC's 56-46 loss to UCLA on Sunday, four starters played 40 minutes. Davon Jefferson played 32. Repeating that should be a taller task against an Oregon team that prefers to push the tempo.

Angelo Johnson, Hackett's replacement at point guard, spoke of taking his time to get the ball up the court, in order to slow things down and allow himself and his teammates to catch their collective breath. Floyd spoke of how Johnson must do a better job penetrating -- one of Hackett's strengths -- in order to open up shots for his teammates.

"We wouldn't have him here if he wasn't a good player, and we're going to remain optimistic that he's going to take advantage of this great opportunity he's got, to try to help us get into the NCAA Tournament."

Floyd praised O.J. Mayo for taking the blame for USC's loss to the Bruins, after the freshman committed 10 turnovers and scored four points. The coach said his team, as a whole, "gets it."

"We're leading the league in defensive field goal percentage," Floyd said. "They're competitors."

USC actually ranks second in that category, behind Stanford, allowing conference opponents to shoot .392. Sunday, the Trojans held UCLA to .339 from the floor.

Players publicly brushed off postseason concerns to talk about how Oregon is "the only thing we think about right now," as sophomore center Taj Gibson said.

But what would it be like for this team to miss the tournament?

"It'd be real difficult, just because of so much of the hype coming into the season," Gibson said. "But we're not worried about that right now. We've got still a lot more to play, and these next couple of games are going to be very important."

Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com


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