USC learns in an unusual way that it is in the NCAA tournament

About halfway into Sunday's NCAA tournament selection show, rumors began to spread among the USC basketball team.

The Trojans were at Galen Center watching the show and felt good about their chances, but they weren't a lock. So they waited.

One bracket filled up. No USC. Then another.

The tension evaporated quickly and strangely.

USC learned it was in when someone on Twitter leaked the complete bracket halfway into the show.

The Trojans learned they would be the No. 8 seed in the East Regional and play No. 9 Providence in the first round.

Guard Elijah Stewart broadcast the scene live on his phone.

"We just saw it," he said, "so we're chill."

It was nothing official, but the leak was 100% correct at the halfway point, and the rest would prove correct, too.

So, for the first time since 2011, USC returns to the NCAA tournament. The game is scheduled for approximately 6:50 p.m. on Thursday in Raleigh, N.C.

Should USC win, it will probably face the region's No. 1 seed, North Carolina.

Early lines in Las Vegas list USC's game as one of the closest in the tournament. The most intriguing matchup will be in the backcourt. The Trojans use two point guards, Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin. Providence has point guard Kris Dunn, a probable NBA lottery pick who averages 16.0 points and 6.4 assists per game.

Dunn is the engine but forward Ben Bentil will be one of the most prolific scorers USC has seen this season. Bentil averages 21.2 points and 7.8 rebounds.

"They have some NBA players on their roster," Coach Andy Enfield said. "A very balanced team."

Providence finished in a tie for fourth in the Big East Conference's regular season, and, like USC, lost in a quarterfinal of the conference tournament. Both teams lost to Xavier — Providence lost twice — and both defeated Arizona. (USC also lost to Arizona on the road.)

Unlike USC, Providence brings NCAA tournament experience. The Friars have reached the tournament three seasons in a row.

USC's tournament berth under Enfield happened more quickly than some predicted.

"I never doubted that we'd go," Jacobs said. "I think we did it sooner than a lot of you all thought."

USC hired Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast in April 2013. He inherited a decimated roster, with no time to sign any new recruits in that year's cycle.

In a news conference after USC's selection to the NCAA tournament, Jacobs recalled how swiftly the team's early optimism vanished.

"I remember coming into my freshman year, not knowing the circumstance of the team," Jacobs said. "We had to submit anonymously our goals for the season. Me being a naive freshman, I wrote 'national championship.' "

Next to him at the Galen Center podium, Jacobs' teammates laughed.

"Come to find out we won one conference game that year," Jacobs said.

Now Enfield was laughing too.

"Two," Enfield said. "Come on!"

USC won three Pac-12 Conference games the next season.

Jacobs called this season "a complete 180." USC picked up early victories over Monmouth, Wichita State and Arizona. But it lost six of its last eight regular-season games and landed on the bubble.

The NCAA selection committee said it was evaluating 21 teams for the final seven spots, an unusually large bottleneck. On Sunday morning, Enfield said he was confident, but, he added, you never know.

In years past, CBS held a one-hour selection show. This year, the network doubled the length of the program, and filled the time between each region with analysis and predictions.

The extra time may have created some anguish for bubble teams. In some cases, teams saw the full field on the Internet nearly two hours before the broadcast crew announced it.

The author of the tweet leaking the field information remains unknown. The account was deleted soon after the show. In a statement Sunday evening, the NCAA said, "We go through great lengths to prevent the tournament field from being revealed early."

It continued: "We take this matter seriously and we are looking into it."

The mood at USC, never grave, relaxed further after the report surfaced — with a few reservations.

"I don't think any of us believe everything that's on the Internet," Enfield said.

It had been some time since their last appearance, and before celebrating, the Trojans wanted official confirmation.

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