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In run to Sweet 16, Hackett has been USC’s point man

He didn’t lead USC in any category Sunday except turnovers, and the man he spent most of the game guarding scored 30 points. But if you’ve been watching -- and I get the sense most of you haven’t -- you know Daniel Hackett is the star of the Trojans’ surprising run to the Sweet 16.

Guys like Hackett are what makes the NCAA tournament such a special event. In this realm, nobodies can become stars and the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan can’t reach the Final Four.

If you picked a squad based on talent in the USC-Texas game Sunday, Hackett wouldn’t be in the top five. Now try to find someone who tried harder or cared more than the freshman guard.

“I’ve never seen him play this great,” Nick Young said. “This whole tournament he’s stepping up.”

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Just about everyone who made the trip can take credit for USC’s 87-68 demolition of the fourth-seeded Longhorns. Great game plan by the coaches and double-digit scoring from all five starters, with an especially gutsy 17 points (along with 14 rebounds) from Taj Gibson despite getting smacked in the jaw. But I’m loving Hackett’s fire, his energy, his willingness to take on any challenges.

How about this news he received shortly before game time: Daniel, you’re getting your first NCAA tournament start. Oh, and you’ll guard Kevin Durant.

“I was like, ‘Oh, gosh,’ ” Hackett said. “He’s a great player, tremendous talent.”

But Coach Tim Floyd had faith in his guy. Part of it was Floyd’s desire to have a quicker team that could get back on defense and force Texas to run its half-court offense (a debacle we’ll get to later). Surely some of it was a reward for Hackett’s strong effort as the sixth man in the first-round game against Arkansas on Friday night, when Floyd said afterward, “I was knocked out by how he played.”

Floyd must have felt like Spinks against Tyson when Hackett set the tone for a game in which the Trojans never trailed. Hackett made a three-pointer on USC’s first possession and drove by Durant and dished to Gibson for a dunk two possessions later. He followed that up with a steal and a layup.

Hackett was the guy who got the Trojans into their offense. He was the one who calmly made shots with the 35-second clock running down. He pushed them to an early lead, when Lodrick Stewart was shaky and Nick Young got off to a slow start before warming up to 22 points. Hackett fired up his teammates, clapping and yelling “Let’s go!” as things continued to go their way.

It seemed right that Hackett got to score the fire marshal basket -- you know, the one that clears the building. When he made a short jumper to put the Trojans ahead, 65-47, with 6 minutes 53 seconds left, people started heading for the exits.

You could tell all this impressed Floyd more than Hackett’s career-high 20 points and seven-for-10 shooting.

“Wasn’t he something?” Floyd said. “The thing that’s unbelievable about him is this kid should be a senior in high school.”

Yes, he started making his unselfish contributions to the team even before he got to campus. Hackett originally was supposed to join the Trojans next season. But after Ryan Francis’ death and Gabe Pruitt’s ineligibility created a point-guard void this season, Hackett took a combination of five junior college and online courses to finish his high school graduation requirements over the summer.

“It was a crazy summer. It was no fun at all, just being on the books and playing a little AAU basketball,” Hackett said.

There was more learning to do when he got to USC. Point Guard 101: Principles and Fundamentals of Playing the “1" position. Hackett, like Pruitt, had always been a shooting guard.

“They both are pulling it off,” Floyd said.

And in some small way Hackett is carrying on the legacy left by Francis, whom he watched play last season.

“The passion that he brought and the spirit, I felt I needed to bring that too,” Hackett said. ‘It’s just me playing hard.”

Can the passion spread to the fan base? Some hard-core followers made the trip, but it doesn’t feel as if there’s Trojans fever for this well-coached, athletic, hard-working team. When I wrote about the likelihood of this outcome after watching both teams Friday night, the only e-mails I received were from hostile Texas fans until a USC fan wrote just before midnight Saturday.

Funny, the Texas fans didn’t send anything Sunday after the Longhorns again failed to use Durant properly, waiting too long to turn the game over to him, and rendering most of his 30 points meaningless.

It should have been Coach Rick Barnes saying, “We wanted to keep throwing it to him because good things were happening when we went inside.” Instead that quote was from Floyd, talking about Gibson.

The tell-tale Texas quote was from A.J. Abrams, who said, “We didn’t have anything to counter” USC’s defensive game plan.

In March, the best coaches tend to triumph and this was a decisive edge for Floyd over Barnes.

Durant was the best player in the game, but Hackett was the player of the game. Only in the NCAA tournament.

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande go to latimes.com/adande.


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