Conference Questions: Men's Hoops

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Did USC Deserve Its Tournament Berth?

Absolutely. Despite Kevin O'Neill's strange, yet not entirely uncharacteristic blowup at a hotel bar with an Arizona booster that resulted in a suspension from the Pac-10 Tournament, the Trojans' performance at Staples Center solidified their case as a legitimate tournament team.

A team composed of giants and midgets, USC is playing some of its most offensively fluid basketball of the season to go with its trademark gritty defense.

North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson has played huge on the boards and in the paint recently to help out the ever-consistent Nikola Vucevic, who many consider a future NBA player. Even Marcus Simmons, the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year known for his weak offense, scored 20 points in the Trojans' semifinal loss to Arizona. Commandeered by Maurice Jones, a diminutive point guard with playground flair, and Jio Fontan, a consistent guard with occasional explosiveness, USC's offense has thrived recently.

The keys to win its play-in game against Virginia Commonwealth as well as a potential round of 64 matchup with Georgetown will be outside shooting and strong interior defense. Donte Smith is a guard that operates in streaks, but he can certainly hit 3-pointers in bunches. Jones can occasionally catch fire from the outside as well, but Smith has been the go-to shooter recently.

Stepheson and Vucevic make it really difficult to score inside, and they will likely frustrate at least the Rams' big guys. USC should make it to the round of 32, but a loss there is probably in the cards for O'Neill and his rag-tag squad.

-Gabriel Baumgaertner

Is Washington the Pac-10's Best Hope in the Big Dance ... Again?

Last spring, the Huskies came off a drubbing against Cal to close the season with nine straight wins and a conference tournament crown. Their surge continued at the Big Dance, where Washington made a surprising Sweet 16 run to redeem a woeful Pac-10 conference. This year, Larry Scott's best hope for a NCAA success may once again sit with Seattle's finest.

Simply put, the Huskies can score with the best of them. Terrence Ross, Isaiah Thomas and C.J. Wilcox provide a trio of dangerous outside shooters, while Matthew Bryan-Amaning is a force inside. And if you want a leader who can carry his team, there's the diminutive Thomas. With backup Venoy Overton suspended at the Staples Center, the 5-foot-9 guard dazzled with two double-doubles and played 123 out of a possible 125 minutes. Overton returns for the Big Dance, meaning Lorenzo Romar's squad goes nine deep - not a bad recipe for a tournament run.

Lastly, Washington's slate looks more favorable than that of Pac-10-mate Arizona. Much like last year, the Huskies draw a middling major conference team - Georgia out of the SEC - in the first round, as well as a vulnerable higher seed in North Carolina. The Tar Heels have certainly made tremendous strides to win the ACC, but they do rely heavily on freshmen. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' West Region is murderous - Texas and Duke are both potential matchups.

-Ed Yevelev


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