The season before, the USC basketball program, in an act of righteous self-flagellation, sanctioned itself from postseason play because it knew the NCAA hammer was going to come down at some point.
Although it was unfortunate for the 2009-10 team, it was the right move for the program because it meant the Trojans would be eligible this season.
“I was really happy about it because now we have a chance to play for something,” Vucevic said that day. “Last year they suspended us, and we played for really nothing.”
But just two weeks ago, it seemed the Trojans were again going to be shut out of the NCAA tournament not because of self-imposed sanctions, but because of self-imposed stupidity.
USC lost an ugly game to Oregon, its fourth loss in six games. At that point, the only way the Trojans would be dancing in March would be through an improbable sweep of the Pac-10 tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it.
Four games and four wins later, the Trojans have vaulted themselves back into the conversation.
If coach Kevin O’Neill’s boys can take care of the Washington schools this weekend, this team deserves a tournament bid.
In ESPN language, the Trojans are a bubble team. They are 6-6 against the RPI top-100 schools, 4-4 against top-50 and 3-1 vs. AP top 25 schools. With a 17-12 record, the Trojans could conceivably reach 20 wins by sweeping the Washington schools and getting one win in the Pac-10 tournament.
Undoubtedly, USC has a few blemishes on its resumé, some more unsettling than Lady Gaga’s meat dress. The Trojans lost to Rider, a school few knew existed, and Bradley, which could either be an academic institution or just some dude you had a class with. That kind of confusion is never a good sign. Other bad losses include TCU and Oregon State.
Then, of course, there are the huge wins over Texas, UCLA, Arizona and at Tennessee. And don’t forget, the Trojans almost knocked off Kansas on the road. When viewed in this light, USC looks like a perfectly qualified choice.
Do the bad losses outweigh the big wins? That’s really a toss up. But the Trojans do seem to be peaking. If they can end their season hot, that should be enough to put them over fellow bubble teams.
But throw the numbers out the window for a moment. Let’s pretend resilience was factored into the RPI ratings. Judged by this standard, the Trojans would be shoo-ins.
Amid all the bad losses and ugly basketball displayed this season, one thing we have never seen is surrender. Adversity has been piled onto USC’s basketball program over and over again, yet “quit” is not a word that comes to mind when the team plays.
O’Neill’s coaching is a big reason for this, but the players’ ability to stay the course is just as important. They were punished for transgressions they had no part in, but they didn’t complain. They have been working with a seven-man rotation ever since Bryce Jones abruptly transferred, but they don’t ask for pardon. Neither fatigue nor lack of depth is ever used as an excuse, even though they are the two biggest culprits for the Trojans’ inconsistency this season.
That’s why ending the regular season with a string of victories is the strongest way to send the message that USC has kicked its worst habit.
Even if the Trojans lose to Washington and beat Washington State, a case could still be made if they can pull off a few victories in the Pac-10 tournament. If they beat both, then it would be nothing short of robbery if the Trojans are left out.
Something tells me the Trojans are going to find a way to get in. After being forced to sit last season out, they can’t let the chance slip away voluntarily this year.
If the Trojans do their part, no one deserves to be dancing more.
“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at email@example.com.