Wash out leaves Trojans in 3rd Place

With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Trojans headed to the Washington schools this past week looking to take hold of second place in the conference. Two losses later, USC completed the season in a tie for third place. It would be easy to view the Trojans' current two-game losing streak as a reason to believe that their postseason run will be short, but you'd be wrong.

Well, actually, you'd be right. But as a fan of Trojan basketball, it's not nearly as fun to think of it that way. And when it comes to what this team has gone through this season, it's a complete disservice.

The truth is that the Trojans' entire season should have been a two-game losing streak. They were coming off a sixth place finish in 2006, losing their final three games, including a fist-round loss to Cal in the Pac-10 tournament.

They lost their starting point guard and inspirational leader, Ryan Francis, to a horrible tragedy in the offseason.

They lost arguably their second-best player, Gabe Pruitt, for the first semester of the season.

They've played basically the entire season with just one senior contributing to the starting lineup.

Their lone inside presence, Taj Gibson, is a true freshman who has no business playing center against the league's taller and wider middlemen.

They get out rebounded by any team with a true power forward. They still don't have a point guard who can consistently penetrate a defense and their eight-man rotation shrinks to about four and a half during crunch time.

But despite all of this, the Trojans finished the season with 21 total wins, 11 conference wins, several stints inside the top 25 and the third seed in the Pac-10 Tournament. And even with the recent slide, you'd have to look pretty hard to find a team looking forward to drawing the Trojans in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. When the Trojans are active defensively, hitting jump shots and pulling in defensive rebounds, they've already proven that they can play with any team in the country.

They just showed that this past weekend.

During the game against Washington, I was a little worried that the Trojans just stuck a 39-cent stamp on the road trip, and were more than happy with their third seed.

But when the tip went up against Washington State, it was obvious that the Trojans would be going down swinging.

Well, it took about ten minutes before we knew whether or not any Trojan other than Taj Gibson was actually playing. After that, however, the Trojans stuck around with one of the nation's best teams for another 40 minutes. They went through ups and downs, kick outs and foul outs, and in the end, they fell by two points.

But you know what? The Trojans ran into a team that got 48 points from its bench, including 25 from a guy who made more shots in that game (10) than he took in any of his previous 22, and still came within one missed free throw of winning the game. When the other team throws an Aaron Baynes at you: a guy who hits ten-of-ten shots and increases his career-high in points from 14 to 25, you just have to take it.

But the Trojans almost didn't "just take it." They hit big shot after big shot, forcing the game into overtime, and then a second overtime.

They played without Nick Young for both overtime periods and received huge contributions from guys like Dwight Lewis and Keith Wilkinson (who provided one of the greatest "NoooooooYES!!" three pointers I've ever experienced during that second overtime).

They fought back against a hostile crowd and some questionable calls.

They played with heart. And no matter how cliché the saying, you truly cannot measure heart. This team has been such a joy to root for all season long. The pieces may not fit exactly how you'd want them to. The trip to Washington State didn't put a true point guard on the roster and it didn't bulk Taj Gibson up by three inches and 40 pounds. But it did prove what many Trojan fans have been growing more and more confident about since the start of the season. Tim Floyd has this program shooting in the right direction.

This team is scrappy. They are extremely well coached and it feels like they truly enjoy playing together. Those are three traits that tournament teams must have.

Now I'm not saying that the Trojans will make a deep run into the tournament. They obviously have their flaws and they've been beat by lesser teams this season. But the talent is there to scare some teams and if things break just right, maybe pull off some upsets.

Of course, the conference tournament is up first, beginning this Thursday evening for the Trojans. While it would be fun to meet up again with the Cougars or even the Bruins, winning games here is not mandatory. Though, it's always nice to be playing your best basketball heading into the dance.

In order to make a real dent in either of the tournaments, the Trojans must stay out of foul trouble and make an impression on the boards, which is where Villanova's talented four-guard lineup got into trouble last season against Florida.

When the season does finally come to a close for the Trojans, it won't be enough to simply look at how far they did or didn't get in either of these postseason appearances. That won't do justice to the kind of season this team has had.

It's the kind of season that you look for when rebuilding a program. Pete Carroll had one with the Trojan football team in 2002. You may not have everything in place, but you've got a coach that the players will actually play for. You have players who are tired of not playing in big-time games. And you have a fan base, slowly remembering what it's like to cheer for a team willing to go all out every night.

Something started with the Trojan basketball program this season. And there's a good chance that it's not over yet.


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