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Floyd returns the favor with late exhibition game

Times Staff Writer

Consider it a giant Christmas card from Tim Floyd.

USC is playing a rare December exhibition game against Fresno Pacific on Saturday at the Galen Center as a thank you to former Trojans interim coach Jim Saia, who is in his first season with the NAIA Sunbirds.

“He’s doing a great, great favor for my program and little Fresno Pacific up here,” Saia said of Floyd.

It was the least Floyd could do to show appreciation for a coach who bridged the gap from the ousted Henry Bibby to Floyd during the painful 2004-05 season.

The Trojans finished last in the Pacific 10 Conference, in part because Saia benched seniors in favor of sophomore Lodrick Stewart and freshmen Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt to quicken their development for future seasons.

“I was going to do it my way, the way I thought I was raised to coach, and I wasn’t going to sell out just to get a few more victories,” Saia said.

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Two years later, the trio of Stewart, Young and Pruitt led USC to the Sweet 16.

Saia, 43, harbors hopes of eventually guiding his own team on a deep run in the NCAA tournament. After leaving USC, he was a finalist for the head job at Fresno State before becoming a private skills coach and volunteer assistant at Citrus College.

His Fresno Pacific team rattled off seven consecutive victories to open the season before losing its first two Golden State Athletic Conference games.

“I have ambitions, but I have to do a good job here first,” Saia said. “One day, to be honest with you, I’d like to get a crack at Division I and see what I can do.”

Even though Saia compiled a 10-15 record with the Trojans following the dismissal of Bibby in December 2004, there were several moments to savor. He recalled diagraming a play for Rory O’Neil that resulted in a game-winning three-pointer against Alabama Birmingham as well as a 17-point victory at California, where Saia had been an assistant coach.

There was speculation that Saia would remain on USC’s staff once Floyd officially took control of the program in the spring of 2005, but Saia said it was “time for me to go on to my next journey.”

The trip has had a few bumps.

Fresno Pacific, led by senior forward Adrian Sanchez and sophomore forward Todd Brown, lost, 87-68, in an exhibition game against Fresno State last month. Recently came more humbling losses against the Master’s College and Vanguard.

Does Saia think his Sunbirds could pull a Mercer against the Trojans?

“Not a chance,” he said. “We can’t score at the NAIA level.”

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ben.bolch@latimes.com


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