“My palms were sweaty,” senior guard Lodrick Stewart said. It was a first date of sorts, a date with the NCAA tournament. LOS ANGELES – USC players sat in the Galen Center stands, two television cameras ready to capture their reactions, and waited. And waited. Stewart, Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt waited for this opportunity for years. Their backs arched and heads tilted to catch a better view of the scoreboard screen from the arena’s plush new seats. They ached to find out who would be their dance partner and where they would be going. But the selection show teased them for more than 30 minutes, going through the complete West region before their name was called. No. 5 USC will face 12th-seeded Arkansas on Friday in Spokane, Wash. The players, some who brought along family members, erupted in cheers. Then they got the unique perspective of watching that delayed reaction on the CBS telecast seconds later. “It was unbelievable,” Young said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that, where we see ourselves on the screen and everybody was yelling, then seeing the No. 5 pop up. That was great.” It’s USC’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since the 2001-02 season, before any current player was on the team. “We’ll get them back to Earth tomorrow, and they can take pats on the back today,” coach Tim Floyd said. The coach took over a team coming off a last-place finish in the Pacific-10 Conference and has it in the NCAA tournament two years later. The Trojans were picked by the media to finish sixth in the conference entering the season. “It’s absolutely ahead of schedule,” athletic director Mike Garrett said. “If you told me, with the team we had coming back and losing Ryan Francis, that we would make the NCAA tournament, I would have said that was a `Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”‘ Francis, the starting point guard last season, was killed in a Louisiana shooting during the off-season. The players wear a patch with his No. 12 on their jerseys. The fifth seed is higher than expected. The Trojans had an impressive resume with seven victories over top-25 teams but had bad losses to South Carolina and Arizona State as well as an RPI ranked 40th. The RPI improved last week, thanks to USC’s run to the Pacific-10 Conference tournament final, but the Trojans (23-11) had an embarrassing blowout loss to Oregon on national television in the title game. “We’re certainly happy with our seed,” Floyd said. “We think we were treated fairly.” The Trojans are 2-0 all-time against Arkansas, winning in 1986 and ’67. Arkansas (21-13) tied for the eighth-best record in the SEC but advanced to the final of the conference tournament before losing to Florida on Sunday. If USC can get by the Razorbacks, it could set up a second-round game against 15th-ranked Texas and national player of the year candidate Kevin Durant. “Obviously, he’s a top NBA prospect,” Pruitt said. “Hopefully, we can take care of business against Arkansas and see those guys in the second round.” [email protected] (818) 713-3607 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
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