USC Preview

USC might be one of the worst teams in the country, but you can still expect them to give the Bruins a game Sunday...

The UCLA Bruins men's basketball team is facing a critical week for its Pac-12 title aspirations. But before the Bruins can think about travelling to the Oregon schools next Thursday and Saturday, UCLA must take care of business against crosstown rival USC on Sunday.

The game will be at the Galen Center, but that may not mean much for the Trojans as they are a very bad basketball team. The key for the Bruins, as it seems to be for them in every game, is the effort the Bruins will bring to the game. If UCLA can bring sustained effort, as they did against Arizona, or even effort for the majority of the game, as the Bruins did against Arizona State, then UCLA should win handily. However, USC coach Kevin O'Neill has had a habit of getting the Trojans to play well against the Bruins and Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins should expect the same on Sunday night.

When I say USC is bad, I'm not exaggerating. In fact, the Trojans may be one of the worst major conference teams in the country this year. O'Neill's program was hit hard by graduation and early entrants to the NBA draft and the team took a huge hit in the preseason when starting guard and team leader Jio Fontan went down with a season-ending ACL injury. That has left a USC team that was already paper-thin relying on walk-ons and players who should be redshirting.

One could argue that USC doesn't have a single player that would start for another Pac 12 team, other than Utah. The one player that might crack a starting line-up is sophomore point guard Maurice Jones (5'7" 155 lbs.), who's starting at the point only because O'Neill has no one else to play the position in a competent way even remotely. Despite Jones' lack of size and seeming quickness, he is much more of a two-guard than a point. He leads the team in scoring at 14.3 PPG, but he's averaging only 35% shooting from the floor and 34% from behind the arc. Remarkably, his long-distance shooting is the best on the team. He has 61 assists, but 43 turnovers to go along with this. If Howland and the Bruins can force Jones into constantly having to make quick decisions he should turn the ball over quite a bit. His quickness is a concern, though, as the Bruins have no one outside of Norman Powell who can consistently keep Jones out of the lane if he should choose to drive. Jones had no assists and three turnovers in USC's last outing against Arizona.

The only other player averaging in double figures is junior forward Aaron Fuller (6'6" 235 lbs.). Fuller does have an inside game and has yet to attempt a three-point shot on the season but he, like Jones, is also playing out of position. Fuller should really be a small forward but has been pressed into playing the power forward spot because of the lack of scholarship players on USC's roster. He is averaging 10.8 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 6.2 RPG. He is quick enough to give any of UCLA's power forwards trouble when UCLA is playing defense, but Fuller will have trouble defending either of the Wear twins or even Brendan Lane because of Fuller's lack of length and height. He is shooting well from the floor (51%), but he has 24 turnovers and isn't the most gifted passer.

The lone post player for O'Neill is sophomore DeWayne Dedmon (7' 255 lbs.). He is a player that would have certainly benefited from coming off the bench and playing behind a guy like Nikola Vucevic, but Vucevic left for the NBA and O'Neill has no one else to put in the paint. At least Dedmon is a defensive presence, having 16 blocks on the season. He's actually been a pretty good shooter from the floor at 58%, but his baskets have come from in close. If the Bruins can force him even out to 6 feet for most of his shots then he will more than likely shoot a much lower percentage than his season average. He averages 5.6 RPG but it seems like he should be averaging more. O'Neill may start in a man defense with Dedmon on Josh Smith, but if Smith can be focused like he was against ASU then Dedmon won't be able to guard him alone in the post.

The other two starters will likely be freshmen Byron Wesley (6'5" 210) and Alexis Moore (6'2" 180 lbs.). They have both been poor shooters from the floor, with Moore below 30% and Wesley not having hit a three-point attempt, and they both have more turnovers than assists. Wesley has been a solid rebounder and defender, though nothing spectacular, while other teams have simply picked on Moore's defense. This is another situation where both players would have benefitted greatly from a redshirt year or at least by having to come off the bench. Neither is near ready to be playing the 33 MPG (Wesley) or 27 MPG (Moore) that they've been asked to log this season. Again, O'Neill has no one else. He's tried starting sophomore Garrett Jackson (6'6" 225 lbs.), but he, too, isn't ready to play at this level. If nothing else, at least Moore and Jackson give O'Neill and the Trojans the potential to shoot from outside. Theoretically if one or both of them ever got truly "hot" from distance then USC could at least be competent on the offensive end.

The reality is that USC's starting line-up is not good and the Trojans would be in real trouble if any of their top five get into foul trouble. If O'Neill has to go deep into his bench then he'll be relying on walk-ons and players who aren't (yet) capable of playing at this level. Take a look at USC's team statistics: as a team USC is shooting less than 40% from the field; the Trojans are getting outrebounded by 2 per game; they shoot less than 30% from behind the arc; they have 274 turnovers to only 155 assists and the Trojans have forced only 206 turnovers. The one saving grace for the Trojans has been their defense, which has forced opponents to shoot only 41% from the floor for the season.

Although UCLA was able to play effective man-to-man defense last weekend against ASU, that was more a result of the level of competition rather than UCLA suddenly becoming quicker and better with help rotations. The reality is that USC's only offensive hope is that Howland decides to show his stubborn streak again and has the Bruins playing man defense. This game is screaming for the Bruins to play zone. USC is a very poor shooting team, even worse from outside, and that should dictate Howland's defensive planning.

UCLA's focus on offense should be clear: Get the big guy post touches on almost every possession. People forget what a solid passer Smith can be out of the post and USC will have to arguably give help with multiple players in order to keep Smith somewhat under wraps. USC's best hope is that Smith comes to the game unfocused and disinterested. Even if USC plays a great deal of zone, which will probably happen, there are numerous holes to get Smith the ball. UCLA has a clear advantage when they have the ball at virtually every position. Even if Jones gets the better of either Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson in the beginning of the game, look for him to wear down as the game goes on. Tyler Lamb is gaining more and more confidence and USC simply has no one who can single-handedly hang with Norman Powell if the UCLA freshman decides to start really attacking the rim.

The biggest issue for this game should be effort and whether the Bruins bring at least their "B" game. If UCLA isn't patient on offense and settles for a lot of outside shots, then that could be their undoing. That will be the biggest challenge for Howland; getting the Bruins to play hard against a clearly inferior team. The Bruins were able to do just that against ASU last weekend, but not before suffering through a dreadful first 12 minutes of the game. UCLA won in a blowout but remember that the Bruins were only up by a couple at the half. That was a home game, and even though USC hasn't been getting any large crowds to come to the Galen Center, the bottom line is it is still a road game. Hopefully the Bruins have learned their lesson from earlier in the year about coming out passively and unfocused. However, it bears repeating that this USC team is bad, arguably as bad as the Pepperdine team the Bruins blew off the floor one month ago. The ASU team that UCLA beat one week ago had defeated these same Trojans rather easily two days before the Bruins played them.

This is a dangerous game in terms of focus with the road games at the Oregon schools looming. But even with this being a "trap" game, the Bruins, who've done a great job of taking care of the ball this season, would have to play a very bad game and USC would have to play much better than they've been offensively for the Trojans to pull off the upset.

Expect the Bruins to be a bit unfocused, but in the end they should win fairly comfortably.

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