3-18-07 -- The best player on the floor will be the best player on the couch for the rest of the NCAA tournament.
Texas star Kevin Durant's season came to an unceremonious close Sunday after an 87-68 thumping at the hands of surprising Southern California.
Nick Young led USC with 22 points in the runaway, which left Durant -- the freshman front-runner for national player of the year -- to decide whether to leave college for the NBA.
"I don't think that's an appropriate question right now," Durant said. "I'm just worried about this team and what we can be next year as a team."
As he often has this season, Durant led everyone with 30 points and added nine rebounds for fourth-seeded Texas (25-10).
But he never came close to dominating this East Regional game. Many times when he got the ball, the offense ground to a halt for the Longhorns, who fell behind by 17 early in the second half and never made a serious run.
Controlling Durant and minimizing the damage that guard D.J. Augustin could do was the key to the USC game plan.
"Basically, there's nothing you can do against Durant," Young said. "You just focus on the other two guys, Augustin and Abrams."
Augustin was held to six points and five assists, while A.J. Abrams had 20 points and was the only other Longhorn in double figures.
The fifth-seeded Trojans (25-11) also got 20 points from Daniel Hackett and 17 points and 14 rebounds from Taj Gibson -- a 6-foot-9 freshman like Durant. USC won by playing smarter, more disciplined basketball, especially on the defensive end, and looking much more like a team in doing it.
A team with a very good leader in Young -- the scrappy swingman who had every reason to believe he'd be a USC alum by the time second-year coach Tim Floyd's rebuilding efforts took shape.
Turns out, the talent's there now, and next week, the Trojans will make their first trip to the regional semis since 2001 -- and second since 1979 -- where they'll play North Carolina in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Things were very hard for us," Young said, recalling a 12-win season of two years ago. "All of a sudden, we got some great freshmen, they uplifted us, and now we're playing great. I hope we keep it up."
With their 25th win, the Trojans set a program record. Not bad for this so-called football school, which got a small -- very small -- measure of revenge for its heartbreaking loss to the Longhorns in the 2006 Rose Bowl with the national title on the line.
This is a long, athletic, relentless team, one that relegated Durant -- brilliant as he was at times -- to the perimeter and dominated the middle.
Though Gibson and Durant weren't head-to-head for much of this, the USC freshman was more effective. After taking a nasty blow to the face that benched him at the end of the first half, Gibson iced this game in the second.
He dominated the boards and made 9 of 14 free throws, almost all down the stretch. Floyd said Gibson couldn't talk after taking the hit. X-rays on his jaw showed no break.
"I wanted to make it back to my mom and dad so they can see me play," said Gibson, a Brooklyn kid who will play next week across the river at the Meadowlands.
USC put this game away early in the second half, after Texas had trimmed a 15-point deficit to four.
Lodrick Stewart worked for and made an open 17-footer. Young came back with a 3-pointer, then swatted Augustin's shot out of bounds on Texas' next possession. A few moments later, Young got an easy putback. He made two free throws, then forced a steal, filled the lane and took a pass from Gabe Pruitt for a slam.
By then, it was 48-33 and Texas was moving into desperation mode.
Durant had nothing to be ashamed of. He added this to a 27-point, eight-rebound opener against New Mexico State in which he never quite looked in sync.
But he couldn't do it all for the 'Horns, and it is now decision time for the 26-point, 11-rebound-a-game star who will probably win several player-of-the-year awards over the next few weeks.
If he chooses the NBA and fellow freshman Greg Oden of Ohio State doesn't, Durant will likely be the top pick -- his perimeter skills giving him a chance to succeed right away while he fills out that skinny, 225-pound frame.
But this won't follow the Carmelo Anthony story of 2003 -- when 'Melo led Syracuse to a championship as a freshman and decided he'd done all he could at this level.
When the game was over, Durant looked to the stands and saw his father, Wayne Pratt, and mouthed the words "I love you" to him twice. Pratt declined interviews and Durant's teammates said they'd love to see the big guy stay.
"I hope he does," Damion James said. "Just think about the team we'll have next year. He's got to do what he's got to do. But I hope he doesn't leave."
While that drama plays out, USC is thinking about the present, hoping to continue an unexpected run in a season played in memory of teammate Ryan Francis. Francis, the USC point guard, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting last year in his home state of Louisiana.
His mother, Paulette, was in Spokane this weekend. Her son would have turned 20 on Saturday.
"He could easily be here with us, enjoying this," Stewart said. "But he is here. We've just got to keep doing this, because at the beginning of the season, we said we were doing it for Ryan Francis."