Banned by self-imposed sanctions from competing in the postseason, the Trojans (16-10, 8-6) hoisted themselves into legitimate contention for the Pac-10 crown after a 67-64 win at Washington on Feb. 18, completing a season sweep of the defending conference champs.
That pulled USC even with Pac-10 leader Cal in the loss column ... for two days.
The Trojans slipped at Washington State, falling 51-47 despite holding star sophomore Klay Thompson to 0-for-12 shooting. Certainly Dwight Lewis' defensive effort against Thompson was a silver lining to the loss. USC is embracing first-year coach Kevin O'Neill's defensive philosophy.
When he arrived before this season, O'Neill said his defensive concepts were "totally foreign" to the current players who learned things differently under previous coach Tim Floyd.
"Tim was a big hands-off guy," O'Neill told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm big into hands-on, foul, keep fouling and they'll quit calling it. I'm big into physical play."
The approach has generally worked. USC has allowed 1,467 points through its first 26 games this season, the fewest it's given up during such a span in nearly 60 years.
"There's times we've been as good as any team I've ever coached, and we don't have great individual defenders," O'Neill said. "We have a great feel for team concepts."
--The only team in the Pac-10 without at least 100 3-point baskets, the Trojans were just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in their win over Washington on Feb. 18. But they compensated by beating the league's top rebounding team 31-26 on the boards.
ON THE SPOT: Senior PG Mike Gerrity's entire career at USC will last barely a half season, following his mid-year arrival. He's been a key when the Trojans are at their best, as he was with 12 points and excellent ball-handling in the 67-64 win at Washington. But the Trojans need two more weeks of strong play from Gerrity, who shot just 1-for-7 and scored two points in the loss at Washington State.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He demands it. And if you want to play, you're going to buy into the system. If you're not playing defense, you're not going to be on the floor." -- USC guard Mike Gerrity, on coach Kevin O'Neill emphasis on defense.
SEASON RECAP: The Trojans had won eight in a row, six since transfer Mike Gerrity became eligible and took over at the point, before arriving in the Bay Area. In their first two games after being informed they are ineligible for the postseason, they lost to Cal and Stanford. They rebounded with an historic win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, then lost three of their next four before pulling off a tough home sweep against the Bay Area schools. A win at Washington on Feb. 18 seemed to give the Trojans real hope they might win the Pac-10 title, but a loss at Washington State made that road a bit tougher.
USC 68, UCLA 64
USC 67, Washington 64
Washington State 51, USC 47
IN FOCUS: The Trojans have a score to settle with Oregon State, which beat them 51-45 in Corvallis last month. Dwight Lewis, who shut down Washington State's Klay Thompson on Feb. 20, likely gets the assignment against OSU junior Calvin Haynes, who lit up USC for 25 points in the first meeting.
ROSTER REPORT: --Senior G Dwight Lewis scored 22 points in the win over Washington, giving him 41 in two victories over the Huskies this season. He has totaled 59 points in the past three games overall.
--Sophomore F Nikola Vucevic had 13 points and 10 rebounds at Washington for his 10th double-double of the season. He followed that with 12 points and seven rebounds in the loss at WSU.
--Senior F Marcus Johnson scored 10 points at Washington.
Marcus Johnson finishes strong at the hoop. (Kevin Carden Photo)