Since USC beat the Bruins at the Galen Center back on January 9th, the Trojans have been very mediocre. They are 2-4 since that game, including getting swept at the Oregon schools. Thing is, college basketball is about match-ups and USC is a bad match-up for the Bruins…as long as Howland insists on playing man defense with a team that does not play good rotational man defense. USC is not a good shooting team, the team's supposed ‘savior' has become average at best and the Trojans haven't played with the same energy they did when they lost to Washington in overtime and then beat the Bruins. They are, however, long and big in the frontcourt and athletic overall as a team, and these are two things that UCLA has struggled with, primarily because they play strictly man defense.
USC's chances at an NCAA berth come down to winning the conference tournament next month. They sit at 12-10 overall, including some nice wins at Tennessee and against Texas, but also losses to the two Oregon schools and Rider. They are 4-5 in the Pac-10 and would have to run the table just to get in the third-place discussion. They have beaten the Bruins four straight times going back to the 2009 Pac-10 Tournament and beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion last season in embarrassing fashion. In essence it seems that the Trojans and Coach Kevin O'Neill take the rivalry with UCLA seriously, which may not necessarily be said by the Bruins collectively. Expect the Trojans to come ready to play.
The bad news for the Bruins, assuming Howland continues to play exclusively man defense, is that USC has arguably the best one-two punch in the low post in the conference. It all starts with junior power forward Nikola Vucevic (6'10" 240 lbs.). Besides being the leading scorer and rebounder for USC, Vucevic has been a killer against the Bruins the past two seasons. He put in 20 against the Bruins in the first go-around and even hit a huge three-pointer in the second half that ensured the Bruins wouldn't come back to win. He is a master at getting open in the short corner of the floor and hitting that jumper. He is also adept at playing with his back to the basket. He was able to score in both situations seemingly at will in the first game against the Bruins. Quite simply the Bruins don't have anyone to match-up with him. Howland started Josh Smith on Vucevic in the first encounter and Smith ended up in early foul trouble. The thought was probably that Smith got many of his fouls early in the year when he was trying to help on defense and that by defending Vucevic, rather than senior Alex Stepheson (6'10" 250 lbs.), that Smith wouldn't pick up as many fouls. It turned out to be a poor choice and there's nothing that makes anyone think it would be any different this time around. Reeves Nelson is too short to guard Vucevic and Brendan Lane was simply overpowered by the USC post. Essentially, if Howland insists on playing man defense all game look for Nelson to guard Vucevic with a lot of doubling when he touches the ball.
Stepheson is the banger of the two post players on USC. He is second in rebounds and scoring just under 10 PPG but he is the better defender between himself and Vucevic. Although Vucevic has three more blocks on the season it really is Stepheson who defends the paint. Vucevic gets his blocks because he is generally the one that comes across to help while Stepheson gets his off his own man or by swatting opposition guards who venture into the lane. Still, when UCLA was able to get the ball to Smith when these teams first met, Smith essentially overmatched Stepheson and Vucevic. The question of whether USC gets Smith in foul trouble or whether or not the Bruins can get the two Trojan bigs in foul trouble may dictate the outcome of the game.
To counter this obvious advantage that USC has in the low post, Howland could play Anthony Stover and Smith together. Smith can handle Stepheson on both ends of the court while Stover has the athleticism and length to be able to theoretically take on Vucevic. But like many possible adjustments that UCLA could have made in the past, this one probably won't happen unless absolutely necessary. Another idea is to use the small line-up with Tyler Honeycutt at the four and force Vucevic out to the arc to guard him, thus opening up space for Smith or Nelson down low. This could get Vucevic in foul trouble. But after watching Howland use a primarily big line-up to little effect against Arizona it appears unlikely he will change things up against the Trojans.
While the USC backcourt presents its own set of match-up issues for the Bruins they are not nearly as dangerous as what the Bruins could face in the frontcourt. That's not to say that USC's backcourt is devoid of talent. The factor clearly in the Bruins' favor here is depth, although USC's backcourt clearly outplayed UCLA's (except for Jerime Anderson) in the first meeting.
The two starters for the Trojans are junior Jio Fontan (6' 175 lbs.) and true frosh Maurice Jones (5'7" 155 lbs.). Both are quicker but not as strong and generally not as disciplined as the Bruin guards. However, they have that quickness factor and the Bruins have struggled with keeping quicker guards out of the paint. Fontan has struggled as of late (he was scoreless in one of the Arizona games), and almost appears to be fatigued, but he has the ability to hurt the Bruins. Jones has been a mediocre shooter this season (31% from behind the arc) and can play out of control but he hit some big shots against the Bruins at SC and has the ability to juke his way inside. The third guard, senior Donte Smith (5'11" 180 lbs.), may be the most dangerous guard on USC as he has been very good recently from behind the arc. He's shooting 40% from distance on the year and has had a habit of hitting crazy, off-balance shots against the Bruins over the past couple of seasons.
The final two players in O'Neill's rotation are both wing players, senior Marcus Simmons (6'6" 220 lbs.) and freshman Garrett Jackson (6'6" 215lbs.). Jackson has to play because he is essentially the only wing/forward sub that O'Neill has confidence in. That's because freshman Bryce Jones (6'5" 185 lbs.) was granted his release on January 18th in order to transfer. The Trojans, not coincidently, have struggled in the three of the four games since. Jones also hit some big shots in USC's win over UCLA at the Galen Center. He will be missed as Jackson plays simply to give others a rest. Simmons is USC's defensive stopper and he gave Tyler Honeycutt all he could handle in the first meeting. Simmons is not a good shooter, averaging under 40% from the field and 31% from behind the arc. But, as seemed to be the case that night, Simmons canned two open threes against the Bruins in South Central.
Much has been made about UCLA's defensive woes, but the fact is that UCLA is capable of playing pretty good defense. The Bruins did it against Stanford and Oregon and arguably the first half of the ASU game. However, the match-up with the Trojans makes that difficult. What the Bruins can control is their collective and individual effort. As a coach and former athlete I find it almost incomprehensible that a high-level athlete would choose to be lazy. Sure, there are a myriad of reasons for this that have been discussed ad nauseum on the BRO message boards, but still…
The Bruins are what they are and I find it unlikely that they will change their individual ways. It was pretty clear from Howland's press conference yesterday that there are things going on behind the scenes that Howland is trying to manage, and I for one am not going to get into the guessing game of what they may be. Again, as a coach I know that you can't treat each player the same way (some need tough love and some would be destroyed by it), and Howland may be doing the best job he can in terms of personnel management. But one thing Howland can clearly control is the schemes the team runs and USC's relative strengths and weaknesses scream for the Bruins to throw a zone defense at them, at least for certain portions of the game. However, the chances of Howland actually allowing the Bruins to do that are probably less likely than the Bruins winning this season's national title.
With all the talk about the defense, even if the Bruins play as they did against Arizona on the defensive end they can still win the game rather easily if they take advantage of the match-ups they get on the offensive end. Josh Smith cannot be guarded consistently by either of the Trojan posts. Every Bruin guard is bigger than any of the Trojan guards, so why not post them up on isolation plays at every opportunity? The Trojans only go 6 ½ deep and if any of the guards get in foul trouble then USC is in deep trouble.
There are a couple of things that will go clearly in UCLA's favor, not the least of which is the homecourt advantage. First, with the lack of depth that USC now faces, O'Neill will be faced with the dilemma of playing the man defense he likes at the expense of being tired at the end of the game. Conversely, if he goes zone to protect his players from foul trouble and fatigue then he can't play the pressure defense that has bothered the Bruins the past four meetings.
In the first meeting in January it seemed that every key shot and possession that USC faced throughout ended up being a score. Chances are that simply won't happen again and one of the players who made some of those shots, Jones, is gone.
Expect O'Neill to switch defenses a lot, especially in the first half, but as long as the game remains close, expect most of those defenses to be zones. Then expect USC to go strictly to a pressure man defense for the last 10 minutes of the game. Obviously if the Bruins run out to lead then USC will go to its man defense earlier, but I really believe that O'Neill is going to try to save energy and fouls for the end of the game. In fact, if the game is close in the first half with about 5 or 6 minutes to go in the half, expect O'Neill to switch to a strict pressure man defense. I also have feeling that O'Neill is going to throw something funky at the Bruins, like a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap. Hopefully for the Bruins Howland anticipates the unexpected, too.
Tracy Pierson predicted this game to be a Bruin victory back in his season preview. I see no reason to go against that prediction. USC will have to play a perfect game in order to win and that's asking a lot from a team so lacking in depth. Further, the loss to Arizona may have zapped any realistic chance the Trojans have at making the Big Dance and that may play on their collective psyche. On the flip side, the Trojans have a habit of getting up for the Bruins regardless of what their record is coming into the game. Still, expect the Bruins to do enough to win and get ready for the return of the person who will remain unnamed Saturday.