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Trojans try it the UCLA way

Times Staff Writer

USC is entering what could be called the Ben Howland portion of its schedule, with tonight’s game against Delaware State at the Galen Center followed by home contests against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Riverside.

If it sounds like a schedule assembled by the UCLA coach, well, it pretty much is. The Bruins have played Delaware State and UC Riverside in recent years and seem to stockpile low-profile programs on their home schedule before opening Pacific 10 Conference play.

The Trojans could use a couple of relatively relaxed encounters coming off consecutive four-point losses against top-five teams. Not that USC can afford to take anyone lightly after its season-opening debacle against Mercer.

“Look at the first game of the season,” sophomore guard Dwight Lewis said. “We can’t overlook any team in a season full of upsets.”

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At 6-3, the Trojans need to pad their record a bit before embarking on their conference schedule. Even with three more victories before its Pac-10 opener against California on Jan. 3, USC would still need to go 11-7 in conference play to reach the 20-victory plateau that is considered the gold standard for entry into the NCAA tournament among major conference teams.

“Hopefully, the NCAA [selection] committee will look at the quality of our schedule and who we played and where we played those games and they won’t be caught up in having to win 20 games or whatever magic number it is, because they have encouraged us to play quality teams,” Coach Tim Floyd said. “But at the same time, it’s hard to justify if you come back and you lose to one of our next three opponents on our home floor.”

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After the Trojans held their regular two-hour practice Saturday morning, Floyd staged a separate, 2 1/2 -hour evening practice for the reserve players who had participated in last week’s Fresno Pacific exhibition, a 65-44 victory for the NAIA Sunbirds.

“It was something we needed,” said freshman guard Marcus Simmons, who missed all six of his shots in the exhibition. “It was Saturday night and everyone wanted to go out, but it will help us in the long run.”

Though Floyd was noncommittal on whether Simmons and fellow freshman Mamadou Diarra would play tonight in a regular-season game following long injury layoffs, both players said Sunday that they were ready to contribute.

“I feel like I’m caught up,” said Simmons, who has not played since Nov. 17 because of a high ankle sprain.

Diarra has not played in a game that counted this season after undergoing hernia surgery early last month.

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Taj Gibson said his sore left ankle has proved bothersome during a three-game slide in which the sophomore forward has fouled out of each game and averaged three points, 5.3 rebounds and 22 minutes.

“A lot of guys in college and in the NBA have played with pain, and I’m just going through it right now,” said Gibson, a preseason Wooden Award candidate who appeared to have trouble elevating against Memphis on Dec. 4 and had several shots blocked.

Gibson said he was working with strength and conditioning coach Rudy Hackett twice a day to improve the strength in the ankle, which has bothered him since late October.

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“It’s a constant pain because down low a lot of guys step on my feet sometimes,” Gibson said, “but it’s something I can get over.”

TONIGHT

vs. Delaware State, 7:30

Site -- Galen Center.

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Radio -- 710.

Records -- Delaware State 3-5, USC 6-3.

Update -- O.J. Mayo could become the first USC freshman to reach double digits in scoring in his first 10 games. His 184 points in his first nine games are the most by a Pac-10 freshman since at least the 1996-97 season, according to Stats Inc. Senior forward Roy Bright is averaging 18.1 points for Delaware State, which is coming off a 39-point loss to Arizona State on Dec. 5.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com


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