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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    New arena part of Trojan success

    It doesn’t take much to literally see the newfound success of the USC men’s basketball team, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2001-02 season.

    After years of playing in a dump called the L.A. Sports Arena, with sparse crowds and not much of a home-court advantage, the Trojans finally moved into the state-of-the-art Galen Center this season.

    “”It feels more like a college environment,”” USC junior guard Gabe Pruitt said in a phone interview. “”We feed off the crowd’s energy. The crowd has been real great, and we can call it our own arena. It’s real good to us. The facilities are top notch.

    “”I think it’s a big difference because it’s more of a college arena.””

    The brand-new 10,258-seat stadium complete with a view of the Los Angeles skyline has in some ways mirrored the rebuilding project of third-year head coach Tim Floyd, who seems poised to take the Trojans to the tournament this season.

    Although USC has lost home games in the final seconds to No. 3 UCLA and Washington State, the Trojans (13-5, 3-2 Pacific 10 Conference) have beaten

    Washington and Wichita State and were responsible for No. 9 Oregon’s only defeat of the year, at home nonetheless.

    “”We feel good, but we know there’s bigger games ahead,”” USC forward Taj Gibson said in a phone interview. “”We need to put the wins behind and keep on playing.””

    Gibson, a freshman, has been a major factor, averaging 13.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, the latter being second in the Pac-10.

    With 2.0 blocks per game (second in the conference), he’s also at the heart of a USC defense that leads the Pac-10 in field-goal defense by a wide margin at 35.2 percent with no other team below 41 percent, and his conference-best shooting percentage (63.9 percent) has helped give the Trojans the third-best differential between what they shoot and what they allow in the nation.

    “”He’s exceeded our expectations,”” Floyd said in a conference call. “”He’s been a better low-post scorer than we thought we were getting. He’s been able to face and make 15-footers, but his real value has come on the defensive end rebounding. He’s an exceptional rebounder. He understands the game and plays with a lot of heart, and he’s been a big difference-maker on our team this year.””

    Said Gibson: “”When I’m down low, most teams can’t win.””

    Gibson may have been patrolling the paint for another squad – possibly Louisville, as Floyd said the Cardinals went after him hard before signing forward Derrick Caracter, if it weren’t for the Galen Center. Gibson said the new building “”was really a big factor”” in his recruitment.

    USC also returns junior forward Nick Young and Pruitt, its best players the past two seasons, along with senior guard Lodrick Steward, who averages 14.2 points per game (15th in the Pac-10). Young ranks fourth in the conference, averaging 16.4 points per game. He has been USC’s go-to player late in games, hitting the jumper to beat Oregon and converting a four-point play to go up one against the Bruins before UCLA hit the game-winner.

    Pruitt, an All-Pac-10 player last season and All-Freshman Team member the year before, has averaged just 8.9 points per game in seven contests after being academically ineligible during the fall semester, a time he said wasn’t easy for him.

    “”It was really difficult for me to sit and watch,”” Pruitt said. “”When the team was out battling it was pretty tough for me. I was doing whatever I could to get out there as soon as possible and help the team.””

    Floyd said that during that time he didn’t think of missing Pruitt on the court, instead saying the most important thing was making sure he was where he needed to be academically.

    “”We didn’t want to talk basketball with him, didn’t want to watch him practice,”” Floyd said. “”He just needed to be making sure his priorities were in place. He’s a good person, he worked hard, he took care of his business, and he has enough experience to play well when he returned, and he has played well.””

    Now with their lineup back intact, the Galen Center crowd could help make a big difference in USC securing an upset of Arizona and taking another step toward an NCAA Tournament berth.

    “”We need to just come out, play as a team, play defense,”” Gibson said. “”They’re a great team. We need to come out with some intensity.””

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