This will be the third time that the Bruins and the Trojans have met this season. UCLA won the previous two meetings and, quite frankly, they weren't really close. The way this game plays out, however, will be key to whether or not UCLA can make a strong run through several rounds of the tournament.
USC's 2011-2012 season was and is historically bad. The Trojans finished the regular season 6-25 overall and 1-17 in the Pac 12. Honestly, they weren't very competitive in most of their losses and their one victory came against 11th-place Utah in Los Angeles.
UCLA finished the season 18-13 overall and 11-7 in the Pac 12. Obviously it was one of the worst regular seasons for the Bruins, based on expectations and the level of competition, in the last half-century. However, because of the way UCLA has played in Los Angeles, there is a feeling (however legitimate remains to be seen) that UCLA has a real shot at winning the tournament, especially if the Bruins don't have to face California.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill really has very little talent and this game should showcase that fact. His best player, sophomore guard Maurice Jones (5'7" 155 lbs.), has clearly worn down because of the minutes he's played. He has very little lift compared to earlier in the season and seems a step slower getting to the basket. The one player that has stepped up as Jones has fallen off has been freshman swingman Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.), who has been the Trojans' leading scorer the past several weeks.
The thing is, though, that neither Jones nor Wesley, nor any other Trojan, for that matter, would start or even see significant minutes if they were on UCLA's roster. Perhaps Jones might because of his quickness on defense (if he were used correctly), but Wesley would find it difficult to get time at the expense of Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell.
If the Trojans are to have any chance at even being competitive in this game then O'Neill has to slow down the tempo. His bench is so thin that any sort of foul trouble to a single starter will quickly doom the Trojans to a 26th defeat. That means utilizing the entirety of the shot clock on many possessions; it mean regardless of what type of defense O'Neill uses, that the Trojans clog the paint and force UCLA into hurried, ill-timed shots, or at least cut down on UCLA's overall possessions; and it means keeping turnovers to a bare minimum. These are things that the Trojans have done successfully only a few times over the course of the season. It also doesn't help the USC cause that the Trojans are shooting 39% from the floor as a team for the season.
Look, the Bruins are going to win, the only question is the final score. That's where this game becomes key for the Bruins. Howland has shown a propensity this season to not play his bench much, even in blowouts. However, even Howland has to realize that the Bruins need to win four games in four days and to do so the Bruins need to remain as fresh as possible. Even if the Bruins aren't completely blowing out USC, UCLA's bench needs to be utilized. If Howland fails to realize this than the Bruins certainly don't deserve to get past Thursday's contest against Arizona.
For the Bruins to view the victory (assuming they win) as successful, a few things need to happen. First, the Bruins truly need to come out from the opening tip and lay the wood to the Trojans. That would, of course, instill confidence in the players. More importantly, it will allow Howland a clear opportunity to play his bench and give the primary players a chance to not only get some game time (infinitely better at this time of year in a tournament setting than just practice) but allow players such as Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane some real playing time. Let's face it: for the Bruins to have a real hope of winning the tournament, they need to get serious minutes from both Stover and Lane.
There is a real question, though, as to whether Howland will do this.
While USC doesn't offer much of a challenge, the Bruins will need all the energy necessary to navigate the rest of the tournament. The reality is that as bad as the bottom three Pac 12 teams are (USC, Arizona State and Utah), the other nine teams, including UCLA, have a legitimate chance to win the conference title. Obviously, the Bruins would have to play Arizona in the second round, but beyond that, the Bruins, should they get that far, could face Stanford and Washington State just as easily as Washington and California. To do that, however, Howland must make use of what bench he has when he can and the USC game should be an opportunity to do just that.
The game could be used as a great warm-up to get ready for Arizona on Thursday…or it can be the beginning of the end of the season, and possibly more.
It's really up to Howland.