The final exam of the second trimester of the college season begins today for No. 2 UCLA and USC as they begin their run today in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.
First-up: USC, the No. 4 seed, plays Arizona State at 12 p.m. today at the Staples Center while UCLA earned the tournament’s No. 1 seed and plays at 2:30 p.m. against the winner of the Washington/California play-in game from yesterday. And if both win, get ready for UCLA-USC round three on Friday night at 6 p.m.
Like most college kids, the young and restless Trojans have been up-and-down with their performance but they have finished strong, winning five of their last six to pass the stingy requirements into the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA, however, is like the kids who were expected to easily ace their classes, but when the going got tough, they buckled down and got those straight A’s although questions remain at how long they’ll last at the next trimester.
That would be March Madness a.k.a. “The Big Dance” a.k.a. the NCAA Tournament – where legends are made and shining moments are immortalized forever.
But before that glorious period, the Pac-10 will have one more slugfest before they do battle with the rest of the country. At worst, five teams should be represented when the NCAA Tournament seedings are announced this Sunday.
East Coast pundits will try to claim that the ACC or the Big East are the best conferences in America (currently the Big East has five ranked teams so they have a great claim) but for my money, there is no tougher conference than the Pac-10 and basketball fans will see why in the next three days.
Right now, though, it’s all about the preparation for this last weekend of the regular season and right now UCLA is living that old maxim of being good and a little bit lucky.
The Bruins clinched their third straight regular season title – the first time they have done that since Ed and Charles O’Bannon led the way from 1995-97 – and have the most wins (28) of any UCLA team in history before the tournament.
Two non-calls may have gotten them clutch victories last weekend but these students of the game know that their stingy defense got them in that position to begin with. And like any former or current student knows, you fall back on what you know when the going gets tough.
To quote junior point guard Darren Collison after their improbable comeback after Stanford, this team has shown no quit and nobody exemplified that better than Josh Shipp, who hit that miracle shot last Saturday despite being in the middle of an icy shooting slump.
They should have no problem dealing with Washington or Cal and if they do face the Huskies, who beat them on Feb. 10, expect a measure of revenge to be dished out cold like an outlet pass from Pac-10 Player of the Year Kevin Love to Collison or Russell Westbrook.
Meanwhile, USC is peaking at the right time like freshmen who finally understand how to efficiently prepare for lectures and exams. Sure, there were plenty of valleys early on, but patience with talented youth will always be rewarded as the Trojan faithful are seeing now.
Fab freshmen O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson have led the charge all year and the Galen faithful rewarded Mayo by serenading him with the chant of “One More Year,” in reference to him possibly jumping to the NBA after this year.
But the key against Stanford was the play of Taj Gibson, who was the player of the game after his 20-point, 11-rebound, five-block effort against the Cardinal’s heavily vaunted Lopez twins, Brook and Robin. It’s no secret he’s battled the sophomore slump all year and a performance like this has to be a boost into the conference tournament.
Today, they have their first test in an Arizona St. squad playing to prove to the NCAA selection committee that they belong in next week’s Big Dance. The Sun Devils, led by freshman stud and former Artesia High standout James Harden, split their season series with the Trojans so look for a tough matchup today featuring two of the best freshman in the country.
Should both Southland schools win, it’ll set up a rubber match Friday that will see two hungry and well-tested teams face off. The Bruins will be fighting to keep that expected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while a Trojan victory could earn them a possible No. 6 seed.
Only the strong and the best will survive into the third trimester. Get your pencils up, because it’s exam time in the Pac-10.