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NCAA berth is riding on a strong finish

Times Staff Writer

With four regular-season games remaining, USC is refusing to adopt a one-and-done approach as it pertains to its NCAA tournament chances.

One more victory would guarantee the Trojans a .500 finish in the Pacific 10 Conference, considered one of the toughest conference in the nation this season. A 9-9 Pac-10 record, combined with a difficult nonconference schedule, might be enough to nudge the Trojans into the field of 65.

But if the Trojans finish the regular season 1-3 and then lose in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, their overall record would stand at 18-13 on Selection Sunday.

“We’re just going to try to win them all. That’s the best formula,” Coach Tim Floyd said Saturday after USC’s 81-53 victory over Oregon State. “A lot of people feel like 8-10 [in the Pac-10] will get you in. I’ve heard that. But we’re not going to treat it that way. I’ve heard others say 9-9 for sure given the strength of the RPI of the league.”

Sophomore forward Taj Gibson said going 2-2 over the next four games might not even be enough.

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“People say if we get two more wins we’ll be in the NCAA [tournament], but we’re not thinking about it like that,” Gibson said. “We think every game is crucial. We’re trying to win every game because we never know how many teams the selection [committee] is going to pick.”

Although the Trojans, 17-9 overall and 8-6 in the Pac-10, are in fourth place in the tightly bunched conference standings, they are closer to eighth place than to first. They trail first-place UCLA by four games and lead Oregon and Washington -- tied for eighth -- by 2 1/2 games.

USC closes the regular season with a difficult stretch of games, on the road against the Arizona schools and then home against California and Stanford. The Trojans were a combined 1-3 against those teams earlier this season, defeating only Arizona State during a game in which Sun Devils standout freshman James Harden was in foul trouble for much of the second half.

First up for USC is Arizona on Thursday in Tucson, where the Trojans won last season for the first time since 1985. The Wildcats (17-10, 7-7) picked up a crucial 65-55 victory over Washington State on Saturday and feature two of the Pac-10’s top players in freshman Jerryd Bayless and sophomore Chase Budinger, who combined for 39 points against the Trojans last month during Arizona’s 80-69 victory at the Galen Center.

“Bayless and Budinger are the 60-by-two theory -- 60% of their scoring comes from two guys,” Floyd said. “Being able to find two guys that want to step up and try to defend those guys for long periods of time and fight through screens and not die on screens will be a key for our team.”

In the first meeting with Arizona, Floyd’s defense was without sophomore guard Daniel Hackett, who fell less than two minutes into the game and suffered a bruised right pelvis. Hackett returned to play sparingly over the Trojans’ next three games before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back that has sidelined him the last two weeks.

Hackett’s return could pick up significant momentum today if a scheduled visit with a back specialist reveals that his core strength has reached an acceptable level for him to resume practicing. Hackett said Saturday he had already been cleared to begin shooting jump shots today.

“Everything is in the hands of the doctors and the trainers,” Hackett said. “I’m just following through with their program.”

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ben.bolch@latimes.com


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