Given recent history, Trojans-Ducks is unexpected final
LOS ANGELES -- Both conversations are still vivid.
Ten months ago, USC coach Tim Floyd told me in his office that he had no idea how the Trojans were going to be competitive this season. His point guard, Ryan Francis, was tragically shot and killed in his native Baton Rouge, La,. and Gabe Pruitt, his best player and Francis' replacement at the point, was ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester. Floyd was distraught over Francis' death, unsure about the Trojans' future and just hoping that he could field a team that would make the school proud.
Go back nearly to four years ago, to a gym in Washington, D.C., where high school all-stars were practicing in preparation for the Jordan Classic. There, amid plenty of hype for these young players, Malik Hairston, a Detroit native, said he was leaning toward going to Oregon because he wanted to cut nets down for the Ducks.
Saturday, in a Pac-10 tournament title game that few would have projected a year ago -- or even two days ago -- USC and Oregon meet for that right to cut down a net. Both schools already are in the field of 65, positioning themselves for seeding, with both banking on a win to keep them protected in the West as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in either the Sacramento or Spokane, Wash., pods.
"I want to put a net around my neck one time," said USC junior forward Nick Young. "It looks like it would be a great feeling. I want to do that one time."
For the Trojans, winning the Pac-10 would be quite a coup. Already, USC has captured Staples Center in a way the Clippers did a year ago when the B-level tenet stole the aura of the building away from the A-list Lakers. This event was supposed to be UCLA's coronation heading off to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Instead, USC, with encouragement from a solid foundation of fans Friday night that had the lower bowl rocking, beat Washington State 70-61 to advance to the final.
"We talked about [seeding] going into this week, since we thought we were in," Floyd said. "[But if we got to the final], I thought we'd be playing UCLA."
So did everybody else, but a funny thing happened to the Bruins on the way to the semifinals; an overmatched Cal team beat the UCLA in overtime. That result handed Oregon an easier road to the title game, one the Ducks took advantage of by dispatching the Bears easily on Friday.
To see the Trojans take over the city for a weekend is hard to fathom after the events of a year ago. This team was rocked to its core with Francis' death. The freshman point guard had won over countless fans in the city, the program and, of course, on the coaching staff. Pruitt's subsequent eligibility issue was a slap in the face. Also, no one had any idea how good freshman forward Taj Gibson would be this season. He's now in the top 10 all-time for USC freshman in points, rebounds, blocks, free throws and field-goal percentage.
Young said he had an idea that the 6-9 Gibson, who blocked Stanford's Anthony Goods' shot at the end of regulation Thursday in the Trojans' eventual overtime win, was a stud when they scrimmaged in the fall. Floyd said he had no idea, though, that Gibson would log serious minutes and be one of the best big men in the league. Gibson scored 15 points (making 9 of 11 from the line) and grabbed nine boards in the win over the Cougars.
"We had to play a high school guy [Daniel Hackett, who graduated early to come take over as the lead guard] at the point the first 13 games, and then Gabe, who is an all-Pac-10 off-guard," Floyd said of his floor generals this season. "We didn't have a true point guard."
That ultimately doesn't matter as much now, as the Trojans have a number of strong guards -- Pruitt, Lodrick Stewart, Young, Hackett and Dwight Lewis -- who can handle the ball. Floyd said he wouldn't trade his perimeter with anyone.
The guards, who combined to make 10-of-16 3s against Washington State, including six by Pruitt, allowed the Trojans to finish tied for third in the Pac-10. That came after USC signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, led by O.J. Mayo. If this team stays together, which is uncertain because Pruitt and Young are considering entering the draft, there is a good chance the Trojans could be ranked in the preseason top-five next fall.
"If you're not right defensively, they'll make you pay," Washington State coach Tony Bennett said.
Bennett said the Ducks could do the same with their guards. Aaron Brooks, freshman Tajuan Porter and even Bryce Taylor get plenty of pub for their perimeter play, but the difference for the Ducks may just be Hairston. He missed 10 games for various injuries this season. However Hariston, who scored a season-high 22 in Friday's win over Cal, appears to be hitting his stride at the right time.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent said Hariston was one of the last guys with a lot of hype coming out of high school who choose to attend college instead of making the jump to the pros (before this year's NBA draft rule change).
"He handled coming in with so much hype well," Kent said. But if Hairston had been healthy this entire season, Kent said, "I felt we would have been in the running for a Pac-10 championship this season."
Hairston said he never felt pressure to live up to the hype, some of which was self-created. Still, groin and foot injuries didn't get him down. That's why, now in his junior year, he's on the verge of cutting down a net he predicted would already be mounted on his wall by now.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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