With O’Neill back, USC to play VCU in first round

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Now that Kevin O’Neill is in charge again at Southern California, he doesn’t have much time to get his team ready for its next game.

Hours after O’Neill was reinstated as coach, the Trojans learned they had squeezed into the NCAA tournament. USC (19-14) was one of the last teams to receive an at-large bid to the newly expanded 68-team field Sunday and will play Virginia Commonwealth (23-11) in a first-round game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.

After missing out on the postseason last year under self-imposed sanctions for NCAA violations, USC players rejoiced when the brackets were announced.

Alex Stepheson tackled walk-on James Dunleavy; Nikola Vucevic yelled while jumping up and down; and tears flowed as guard Jio Fontan embraced his father.

“It was crazy, it was wild. You just felt the positive energy. You just felt everybody’s excitement,” Fontan said.

The USC-VCU winner will be seeded 11th in the Southwest Regional and face No. 6 seed Georgetown (21-10) on Friday in Chicago.

O’Neill will be back on the sideline after athletic director Pat Haden reinstated him Sunday just hours before the brackets were unveiled.

O’Neill was suspended for USC’s Pac-10 tournament semifinal loss to Arizona on Friday after a verbal altercation involving him, his wife and a Wildcats booster at the team hotel a night earlier.

Had the Trojans been omitted from the NCAA field, O’Neill said he knows his indiscretion would have been even more scrutinized.

“Every loss gets blamed on something and that would’ve been an easy blame,” O’Neill said. “The coach gets suspended for the game and you can’t play (in the NCAA tournament).

“I’m relieved we got into the tournament, but I’m more relieved for the players than for me because they deserved it.”

USC has made the NCAA tournament the last four times it has been eligible, but as players watched while other teams were called Sunday, doubt started to creep in.

“At first (when) they were picking some teams that were on the bubble, I kind of got nervous. I thought we weren’t going to make it,” Vucevic said. “Once I saw our name on the screen, it was just one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life.”

Since being suspended, O’Neill has been remorseful and apologized to his team, the university, athletic department and fans, “for my screwing up over the weekend.”

“I felt really regretful and felt terrible for all the people I let down,” O’Neill said. “When you feel like that, it’s not much fun. But then hit the other end of the spectrum today when you get to sit there and watch the group that gave you so much emotion and effort all year be at the height of emotion … for them it’s great happiness.”

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