For a team that's incredibly bi-polar, USC, strangely, is getting the benefit of the doubt this week it seems. Credit its opponent for tomorrow night, however, in Virginia Commonwealth.
The Rams were a controversial inclusion in the NCAA tournament on Sunday. They were the third team from the Colonial Athletic Association, which was viewed as more than enough and finished 5-5 to end the season. Outside of a mid-November win over UCLA, their resume is lacking in victories over highly-ranked opponents.
Because so many felt as if Colorado and Virginia Tech were snubbed, it seems to be an annual occurrence for Seth Greensberg's Hokies, VCU seems to be getting a lot of flack, whether right or wrong. Yet, that doesn't necessarily mean the Trojans are going to coast through Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday night.
As we've seen many times this season, 'SC has had difficulties against, well, bad teams. This past season, they had nine losses against sub-76 teams and three sub-200 losses. And even most irritating, they finished with just a 1-4 mark against the Oregon schools in conference.
Those numbers, alone, should, at least in theory, prevent the type of talk that assumes USC will be in Chicago Friday night to face No. 6-seeded Georgetown.
If USC has any sort of personality, it's that its a Jekyll & Hyde team of sorts: beating Arizona and Texas on one night and losing to a team such as Rider or TCU the next. Stringing together successive wins, in other words consistency, has escaped the Trojans in 2011. And yes, that's hard with seven guys.
But recent weeks have proved otherwise, as they finished the regular season with six wins in their last eight games - nothing to frown upon. The focus, clearly, is there. And yet with all the doom and gloom related to depth concerns in mid-February, they've kept their heads up with the Big Dance on the horizon.
"We are not just happy to be here," Donte Smith told the media following Tuesday's practice. "We feel like we can make some noise in this tournament."
And they certainly could.
Prior to Friday's Pac-10 tournament semi-final matchup against Arizona, five USC players were averaging double-digit point totals. Since relegating Maurice Jones to the sixth man role, there's been a noticeable improvement in Jones' play. In those games, where USC has gone 6-2, he's averaged 11 points per game.
There's been a noticeable improvement, yet at the same time, based on the way USC has played at times this season, there's always an opportunity for a letdown. Per Pedro Moura of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
Junior guard Jio Fontan admits it now: the Trojans were, at times, looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament during last week's Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles - hoping to skip past the set-up stage right into the Big Dance.
But, after USC was swept away in the semifinals by Arizona and forced to wait out Selection Sunday on the very edge of the bubble, it won't happen again, he insists.
"As far as I'm concerned, I think it was a little harder not to look ahead in the Pac-10 tournament than it is in this tournament, simply because this is it," said Fontan, the team's most vocal leader and its second-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game. "In the Pac-10 tournament, we had the mentality that we wanted to win the tournament. And at halftime of those games, you're thinking about the next opponent, thinking about what's coming next.
"Here I think the risks are higher than they were in the Pac-10 tournament, so you're just trying to beat the first team. Every day somebody loses and goes home and their season is over, so I think it's a lot easier to take it day by day."
I find that a little disconcerting, personally. There was no assurance of an NCAA tournament at-large bid, so why in the world would they be looking ahead, past the Pac-10 tournament?
That is a mantra, that obviously cannot carry over to tomorrow night's contest. Because VCU, no matter whether they deserved to be included in the field of 68, can play. They've beaten UCLA earlier this season and lead the CAA in 3-pointers made, as well as ranking first in turnover margin at 3.3, according to Baxter Holmes of the LA Times.
This it. This is the end of the line for guys like Donte, Marcus Simmons and Alex Stepheson. But if they look past, VCU they might not end up on a flight toward Chicago after all.