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USC ends 5-year itch

Times Staff Writer

A team that opened the season with a heart-rending video tribute to slain freshman Ryan Francis found a more uplifting use for the scoreboard inside the Galen Center on Sunday afternoon.

USC players roared their approval and thrust their arms skyward in triumph as their school’s name appeared on the broadcast of the NCAA tournament selection show, ending a five-year postseason drought. The fifth-seeded Trojans will play 12th-seeded Arkansas in an East Regional first-round game Friday at Spokane, Wash.

“I thought we were probably going to go sixth or something,” junior swingman Nick Young said. “It kind of shocked me when I saw a fifth seed. That’s even better.”

The Trojans (23-11) moved up a couple of spots after their run to the Pacific 10 Conference tournament championship game, where they were throttled by Oregon, 81-57, Saturday at Staples Center. The Ducks, who finished in a three-way tie with USC and Arizona for third place in the Pac-10 regular-season standings, received a No. 3 seeding in the Midwest Region.

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“We’re certainly happy with our seed,” said Coach Tim Floyd, who has guided the Trojans to the NCAA tournament a year ahead of most projections. “We think we were treated fairly and hope we can play to the level that the [selection] committee put us at.”

Floyd made it clear that the Trojans would be bounced quickly from the tournament if they could not defend better than they did against Oregon, which made 53.6% of its shots on the way to building leads as large as 39 points.

“They can take the pats on the back today,” Floyd said of his players, “but we have a lot of work to do to get back to guarding people, which has been our strength, and we didn’t guard anybody on Saturday night.”

Floyd said he hoped his longtime mentor, former Texas El Paso coach Don Haskins, could attend the Trojans’ game against the Razorbacks. Haskins and Floyd speak by phone several times a week, and the exchanges aren’t always pleasant.

“He had some advice about [Saturday’s] game, that they better get their damn feet back on defense,” Floyd said of Haskins. “I said, ‘Coach, I watched the game.’ And he said, ‘Well, you need to hear it too.’ ”

If USC has one advantage against Arkansas, it might be that the Trojans have thrived in bounce-back situations, going 9-1 after losses this season.

“I’m glad we got a loss. That will make us hungrier,” Young said. “We have something to prove now. We all feel we got embarrassed, so we’ve got a lot to prove this week.”

Looming in the second round is a potential matchup against fourth-seeded Texas and national player-of-the-year candidate Kevin Durant.

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“Arkansas, then Texas -- it’s going to be a tough road, but it’s something we can do,” Young said.

Floyd, who will be taking his third team to the NCAA tournament after guiding New Orleans and Iowa State to college basketball’s biggest stage, already was warning against the potential hazard of a 5-versus-12 matchup, one in which upsets regularly occur.

“We’ll go back and do our history on those 5-12s through the years,” Floyd said. “I want them to hear that thing, I want them to be on edge, I want them to understand that you get to this level, anybody can beat you. There are too many quality teams.”

Prognosticators who picked the Trojans to finish sixth in the Pac-10 this season and -- at best -- advance to the National Invitation Tournament shortchanged a team long on heart and talent.

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Floyd has credited former Trojans coach Henry Bibby for recruiting his top three players -- Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart. He also has praised former interim coach Jim Saia for accelerating the development of Young and Pruitt by playing them as freshmen at a time when doing so divided a senior-dominated team.

Floyd, who has a 40-24 record in two seasons at USC, said he’s not ahead of schedule in his efforts to revive the Trojans because he never made one.

“The only schedule I had was to try and get it done before the end of my contract, which was the fifth year,” he said. “I really didn’t know when we were going to get to the tournament and certainly be a 5 seed. We’re thrilled with where we are but know that we still have a long way to go to build this program to where we ultimately want it to be.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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