USC Preview

It's good timing for UCLA -- coming off a deflating loss to Cal to face one of the worst teams in D-1, USC. The question is: How motivated is UCLA now?

As Tracy Pierson wrote in his California game review, the UCLA men's basketball team is now clearly a known quantity, and what is known isn't anything above average, at best. I wrote in the Cal game preview that the Bruins needed to show well to at least legitimize the notion that Cal wasn't simply a bad match-up for UCLA. But, because of some questionable coaching decisions by UCLA's Ben Howland, a poor shooting day (for their standards) by David Wear and Travis Wear, and the absence of Anthony Stover, UCLA was playing from behind virtually the entire game. That doesn't bode well should the Bruins meet up with Cal a third time in the Pac 12 Conference Tournament.

However, UCLA has shown that its mediocrity is still good enough to compete for victories every other time out against the rest of the Pac 12. UCLA has shown that it's clearly better than the teams at the bottom of the conference, and UCLA hosts one of those bottom-feeders on Wednesday night at Los Angeles Sports Arena: the USC Trojans.

Even the most die-hard Trojan fan has to admit that the likelihood of a Trojan victory on Wednesday is pretty remote. I understand that it's a rivalry game and all, but the fact of the matter is, as bad of a match-up as Cal is for the Bruins, there may not be a better match-up for UCLA in the Pac 12 than the Trojans.

USC sits at 6-20 overall and 1-12 in the conference, and this is clearly one of the worst teams that USC has produced in the last 50 years. A lot of that can be attributed to poor recruiting on the part of head coach Kevin O'Neill and his predecessor Tim Floyd but, even though the Trojans were supposed to be bad, no one could have predicted that season-ending injuries would remove three starters from the line-up. Guard Jio Fontan was lost before the season started to an ACL tear and then wing Aaron Fuller and post DeWayne Dedmon were lost as the season progressed. That has left the Trojans with essentially a six-man rotation, one of whom is a walk-on. The squad is about as bereft of talent as any major college program in the country. The Bruins had a significant talent and size advantage when they beat the Trojans

at the Galen Center earlier in the year, 66-47. That disparity has only gotten much worse as both Fuller and Dedmon played in that game. There is clearly no one on the Trojan roster that would start for UCLA and it can be reasonably argued that there may not be a single player on USC's roster that would get significant court time for Coach Ben Howland.

The one exception might be sophomore point guard Maurice Jones (5'7" 155 lbs.), who is really a two-guard, but O'Neill has been forced to play him at the point because he has no other option. Jones leads the Trojans in scoring but that's because he is a volume shooter. He has taken 348 shots on the season and has made only 35% of them. Further he's made only 29% of his 136 three-point attempts. Jones is certainly an undisciplined shooter but he's had to take that many shots because of the lack of talent around him. The Bruins basically shut him down in the first meeting at Galen and it showed in the 47 points the Trojans scored. Other teams are now clearly doing the same thing. In essence, if you hold Jones to less than 25 points, you are going to beat the Trojans and by a sizeable margin.

The other starters are sophomore Garrett Jackson (6'6" 225) at power forward, junior James Blasczyk (7'1" 260 lbs.) at center, and freshmen Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.) and Alexis Moore (6'2" 180 lbs.) at guard with Jones. Junior guard Greg Allen (6'3" 180 lbs.) is the one player off the bench who sees any real minutes. Jackson has the ability to hit some outside shots but he has shown no consistency on the season. He is quicker than either of the Wears at the four but is at a significant height disadvantage. Blasczyk plays because O'Neill has no one else to plug in at that spot. He actually gets the least minutes of any starter and is very limited athletically. Moore and Allen are solid defensive players but their offensive games need work. Wesley has the chance to develop into a nice player but he's also a bit raw and is being asked to shoulder more of the scoring burden than he should. In a perfect world, Wesley would have been able to get about 15 MPG off the bench where he could learn. However, he's been averaging well over 30 MPG since the injuries to Dedmon and Fuller.

UCLA's man defense matches up very well with the Trojans. The Bruins are comparable in height or have a distinct advantage at every spot on the floor. Even with Blasczyk over seven feet, Anthony Stover's length (if he's healthy) and Josh Smith's size should simply overwhelm the Trojan post. Even though Jackson is more athletic than either Wear brother, UCLA probably has the better athlete at every other spot on the floor.

The Trojan game plan is going to be pretty simple: first, the Trojans will use most if not virtually all of the shot clock on every possession. The Bruins must remain patient on defense and be sure to take care of the defensive boards, where UCLA will have a huge advantage. The Trojans have only broken the 60-point barrier once in the past seven games and that was against Utah, a team almost as bad as the Trojans. USC has scored less than 50 in its last three games.

Defensively, O'Neill will mix man and zone defenses, although he's handcuffed on the amount of man defense he can play because of the limits on his rotation. When in a man defense, look for the Trojans to try and pressure the ball so as to force UCLA to move and pass laterally and cut down on good looks for post-entry passes. When in a zone, expect the Trojans to pack it in, especially when Blasczyk is out of the game. This means that UCLA will have to use its array of ball fakes, quick passing and early entry into the post (or the middle of the floor against the zone) in order to break down things.

The mindset of the Bruins has to be questionable right now, with no one really knowing how focused they are on the Trojans or the coming road game this weekend against St. John's. Quite frankly, it's not as if focus is totally necessary; I know the old adage about "any given day…", but the reality is the Bruins would have to suffer a collapse of epic proportions both mentally and physically, and the Trojans would have to play a near-perfect game. The key for this game is really the things that Howland can do to help the Bruins for the stretch run in the Pac 12.

For starters, Howland can rest them…the starters I mean. There should be some serious court time for Stover (if he's healthy), Norman Powell and Brendan Lane. By serious court time I mean at least 20 minutes or close to it. Yes, even for Lane. Beyond the fact that doing so will help those Bruins play better for the times when they are truly needed, it will give a rest to the guards and to the Wears. Both of the twins seemed to have no lift in their legs for much of the Cal game, a clear sign of fatigue. The St. John's game will be much more up tempo, but the reality is that the game in New York means very little because the Johnnies are struggling mightily. Howland has a real opportunity to reenergize his team before the conference tournament. It is an opportunity the other schools in the conference don't have.

The talent difference in this game means the Bruins will win. The only question is, by how much? The Bruins can almost pick the score so it will depend on how intense the Bruins are from the opening tip. If the Bruins take this game very seriously then we could be looking at a 30-point-plus blowout. It may be that USC simply can't score and, in spite of their many issues, the Bruins can.

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