Trojans mired in the unknown after loss

Playing without suspended head coach Kevin O'Neill, USC drops game that could decide postseason destination.

LOS ANGELES – USC will enter Selection Sunday uncertain of where it will play in the postseason, be it NIT or NCAA.

The bigger question might be who will be coaching the Trojans in their next game.

Both are now up in the air following a tumultuous 24 hours in which coach Kevin O'Neill was suspended for USC's 67-62 loss to Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals Friday night at Staples Center.

O'Neill and his wife, Roberta, were involved in a verbal altercation with a Wildcats booster following the Trojans' 70-56 win over California on Thursday night, leading to the punishment.

"We have met with various parties who have knowledge of the incident," USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement. "Based on the information we have gathered, I am immediately suspending Coach O'Neill for the balance of the Pac-10 Conference Tournament. We also have set forth additional discipline that will remain private."

Players became aware of the incident early Friday and O'Neill addressed the team later that morning, but no one had an idea the Trojans would be playing for their tournament lives without their head coach.

"I wasn't upset at him," forward Nikola Vucevic said. "People make mistakes. I'm sure he feels really bad about it and he'd want to be with us tonight.

"We didn't think they were going to suspend him. I didn't really even know what happened last night so I didn't think it was that big of a deal."

Assistant coach Bob Cantu, who took over for O'Neill, the rest of the staff and team were informed of the suspension just three hours before tip-off.

"We got instructions at 3 p.m. that that's what we were going to do," Cantu said. "The guys responded. They played hard. I could see in their eyes they really wanted to compete and I'm just proud of their efforts."

Even without O'Neill, USC (19-14) nearly knocked off the regular season champion Wildcats.

Marcus Simmons scored a career-high 20 points, but the Trojans were unable to get over the hump, despite shooting 49.1 percent from the floor.

The Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year had been regarded as an offensive liability most of the season, opponents offering token resistance and often inviting Simmons to shoot long jumpers.

This night, the senior guard knocked them down, scoring 11 points in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers.

"I told Marcus before the game, before we was coming out, ‘if they give you the shot, take it. Just shoot it. It don't matter if it was a 3 or midrange, shoot it.' He did that. He did good," senior Donte Smith said.

But there wasn't enough help for Simmons.

Special attention was paid to Vucevic, who was hounded by Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams and almost double-teamed every time he touched the ball.

The junior finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his 21st double-double of the season.

"It was hard for me to do what I usually do and it was frustrating," Vucevic said.

Williams had 20 points and six rebounds for Arizona (27-6), while freshman Jordin Mayes scored his only eight during a 2:29 stretch in the second half where the Wildcats opened up a 12-point lead, largest of the game.

Now USC must wait and hope its name is called on Sunday afternoon.

Said Smith: "It's up to the people in Indianapolis."

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