Unfortunately the Bruins may be facing one of them on Wednesday night when the Bruins return to action to host crosstown rival USC. The Bruins enter the game with a record of 16-5 (6-2 in the Pac 12), while the Trojans come into the game with a record of 8-13 (3-5 in the conference). The Pac-12 Network will televise the game live from Pauley Pavilion with the scheduled tip for 7 PM PST.
Arizona State truly exposed what a combination of poor shooting and an average big man could do to the Bruins. Sun Devil center Jordan Bachynski had a career day against simply because UCLA couldn't match up physically with him inside. The Bruins couldn't shoot because ASU took away Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adam, and dared Larry Drew II, Kyle Anderson and David Wear to win the game. They couldn't and that may be the recipe for beating the Bruins from here on out. The most significant aspect of ASU's defense was the manner in which the Sun Devil point guards, notably Jahii Carson, sagged four to five feet off Drew. Then there was the manner in which Carson abused Drew and the Bruins on the other end of the floor; yeah, Larry had a poor game.
Although USC is struggling, the Trojans have enough talent to win any game on their conference schedule. Since the removal of Paul O'Neill as head coach and the installation of interim head Bob Cantu, the Trojans appear to be playing a more competitive, up-tempo brand of basketball. Until the blowout loss they suffered on Saturday to Arizona, the Trojans had actually liked they were enjoying themselves and pretty competent.
The Trojans have two players who will present UCLA with potentially the same issues the Bruins faced in Tempe last Saturday, junior post DeWayne Dedmon (7'0" 255 lbs.) and senior point guard Jio Fontan (6'0" 175 lbs.). Dedmon's combination of athleticism and experience is simply something Coach Ben Howland's Bruins do not have right now. While it will certainly help to (assumingly) get Travis Wear back for the game, Dedmon still has a size, length and even quickness advantage over either Wear brother and Tony Parker. Now for the differences: unlike ASU's Bachynski, Dedmon is raw with his footwork. That means the pick and roll that ASU used at times to beat the Bruins won't be nearly as effective. Further, Bachynski has been reliable around the rim all season, while Dedmon only shoots 46% from the floor and most of his shots come from within five feet. Lastly, Dedmon is also raw in terms of his ability to establish and keep position in the low post. That alone should make him easier to guard. The one area he will clearly be a threat because of his wingspan is in shot blocking. He is averaging 2 blocks per game and he has the athleticism and length to actually get out on the Wears when they pop looking for the mid-range jumper. He is also the leading rebounder (7 RPG) on a team that is pretty average in that department. He's still pretty foul prone and leads the team in both fouls (64) and disqualifications (3). He got in foul trouble against the Bruins last season in two of the three games and it really affected the Trojans negatively.
Fontan is a solid to good point guard who is still recovering from last year's ACL tear. He's nowhere near as quick as he was pre-injury, but it is coming back. A big difference between him and ASU's Carson is that, while they both can dish the ball (Fontan has 99 assists), Fontan has been lousy from the field this season, shooting at 34%. In fact, his 36% from behind the arc is much more solid. The problem for the Bruins is that Carson showed that a point guard doesn't need to shoot well to completely disrupt UCLA's defense. Fontan is quick enough to get into the lane frequently because he may be quicker than Drew, but also because UCLA's point guard can often play lazy defense. If Fontan can penetrate as Carson did, then UCLA is in for a long night yet again because, as it reads above, Fontan can dish the rock.
Remember that college basketball is all about match-ups, and USC is similar, again, to Arizona State in how it matches up with UCLA in that it has a third pole holding up its tent. ASU had Carrick Felix, who lit up UCLA on Saturday every bit as much as Carson and Bachynski. USC, in addition to Fontan and Dedmon, also have arguably its best player this season in senior Eric Wise (6'6" 240 lbs.) He averages 12.5 PPG and has been a solid shooter both inside the paint and beyond the arc (48%). While he isn't the greatest athlete, he does know how to get his shots. However, as the Trojans have gone to a more up-tempo approach under Cantu, Wise's production has fallen, as he's become easier to guard with USC shooting earlier in the clock. When O'Neill still patrolled the sideline the USC offense used up much of the shot clock and Wise was able to use numerous screens to get open looks. He simply isn't getting those screens the past two weeks. Whoever is guarding Wise, whether it is Shabazz Muhammad or Kyle Anderson, must do a much better job than they did against Felix or else Wise will score 20+.
The other two starters for Cantu are sophomore Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.) and junior J.T. Terrell (6'3" 185 lbs.). Wesley is that kind of player that doesn't do anything great but does many things competently. He is a 46% shooter from the floor and 35% from three. He gets 4.4 RPG and is second on the team in assists. Nothing stands out, but he is a good athlete, one who could cause the Bruins some real problems. He is also arguably USC's best defender.
Terrell is a Wake Forest transfer who was supposed to come in and be the best outside shooter on the squad. He started very slowly, but part of that was because of the structure of O'Neill's offense. Since Cantu has become the interim head, Terrell's has really shot and scored much better. He has taken more shots than anyone on the roster. The problem is he's shooting 33% from the floor and from behind the arc. However, he truly does have the ability to go off and the Bruins had better be aware of his abilities.
Juniors Omar Oraby (7'2" 270 lbs.), Aaron Fuller (6'6" 235 lbs.) and true freshman Chass Bryan (5'9' 165 lbs.) are the only players who see any sort of playing time off the bench, although none of them play more that 15 MPG and those minutes have been dwindling. Oraby spells Dedmon, but he is nowhere near the athlete that Dedmon is and UCLA will have a much easier time with his slow-moving bulk than with Dedmon's Gumby-like length. Fuller actually plays some significant minutes, rebounding well for his size and using his weight in the low post. Bryan is the back-up point guard and plays only to give Fontan a breather.
There are clearly some scary similarities between ASU and USC, and they would become more pronounced if Shabazz Muhammad, who is down with what sounds like the stomach flu, couldn't play for the Bruins. USC, however, is more like a poor man's version of ASU – similar in personnel and how they match up with the Bruins but not nearly as talented.
While Dedmon is an athletic shot blocker, his basketball acumen doesn't approach that of ASU's Bachynski. He certainly doesn't have Bachynski's touch. Oraby is nowhere near as effective as ASU's Ruslan Pateev coming off the bench. So David and/or Travis Wear and Tony Parker should find the going easier than against the Sun Devils. Fontan is good but absolutely doesn't have the quickness to truly terrorize Larry Drew II like Carson. The one caveat here is if Cantu learns from what ASU did to Drew and has his guards sag way off the Bruin senior. If they do then Drew must try and keep the USC defense honest with his outside shot.
In extending the comparision to ASU, Terrell has the ability to shoot much like ASU's Evan Gordon did, however, he is still just a sub-40% shooter; Wesley, while he is athletic, isn't the basketball player that ASU's Jonathan Gilling has become, especially on the boards and behind the arc, but he is, however, a better defender.
While Wise will remind some of ASU's Carrick Felix, the reality is that Wise isn't quite the player that Felix is simply because he's simply not as athletic nor does he rebound like the Sun Devil senior.
Overall, the benches are also clearly different, with USC being far shallower than Arizona State.
In terms of coaching, Cantu, while clearly getting USC to play harder and looser, is still trying to prove himself, while ASU's Herb Sendek is a very good tactician.
This is a bit of a scary game, especially if Muhammad is out (although the best guess is that it's a 24-hour thing) because the Bruins lack depth.
There are a great many question marks in this game, not the least of which is the availability of Muhammad and Travis Wear. This pick is made with some trepidation because of the uncertainty of the roster before the tip.
But, if you assume that Wear and Muhammad can provide just some minutes, that Drew will have a better game than on Saturday, and that UCLA is home and will be wearing the "Blue Out" uniforms…
…you have to go with the Bruins. But I reserve the right to change my mind.