This is the second time the Bruins and Trojans will play each other, with USC winning at Pauley Pavilion three weeks ago in overtime, 75-71. This Sunday's game will tip at the Galen Center at 12:30 PM PST and be televised on Fox Sports Net as the day's nationally televised contest.
The Trojans enter the game at 12-14, 7-6 in the Pac-12. USC, which has been playing decisively better since the firing of Kevin O'Neill and the elevation of assistant Bob Cantu to interim head coach, has an outside shot at winning the conference itself, so the Trojans have everything to play for. Let's face it -- USC has to throw everything it has into every game remaining on its schedule, as that's the only way the Trojans will make it to postseason play. In short, the Bruins should get USC's best shot.
Typically I spend much of these previews looking at the individual players for UCLA's opposition, their statistics and their tendencies. However, much as this season has been a bit different, so have the previews as the season has progressed. As we look at what are going to be the keys to the game, the bottom line is, as Tracy Pierson has written on BRO numerous times, it's about the match-ups.
First, though, the game plan that Cantu employs could be as critical as the individual match-ups. When these teams played at Pauley Cantu followed the game plan employed by Arizona State's Herb Sendek, namely playing off UCLA's point guard, Larry Drew II when on defense and running numerous ball screens when the Trojans had the ball. Drew did nothing to really make the Trojans pay for leaving him open and struggled to contain USC's point guard, senior Jio Fontan (6'0" 175 lbs.) off ball screens. It isn't a coincidence that UCLA was able to force overtime after being down by double digits in the second half of that first game, when Fontan was on the bench in foul trouble. Drew has been much better as of late with his jumper, making both Washington State and Stanford pay for playing off him. If he can continue his solid outside shooting then USC will have to adjust its defense, probably opening things up for the rest of the Bruins, specifically because USC will have to body up more on Drew, thus allowing him to penetrate and dish, where the Bruin senior has been solid all season.
If Drew is unable to hit the outside shot with any consistency then the Bruins are going to struggle on offense. That's because the other area that the Trojans focused on the last time these teams met was to take away the easy looks for Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. USC essentially played tough ball denial on both Bruin freshmen and then ran a second player at them when they did get the ball. It's important to keep in mind, however, that Muhammad was playing with the lingering effects of the flu while Adams was in the midst of his recent shooting slump. Muhammad, in spite of the pink eye he wrestled with this past week, is healthy and coming off a very good offensive game in Palo Alto, while Adams may have finally gotten out of his slump against Stanford.
Another key is going to be junior forward Travis Wear's ability to hit the mid-range jumper. Wear was an offensive key for the Bruins when UCLA was in the midst of their good run of play culminating with their win in Tucson. However, ever since Wear suffered a concussion in that game against Arizona, he has struggled with his shot. Based on my own personal experience with concussions, both as a coach and a player, this is not a coincidence. The hope for Coach Ben Howland is that Wear comes out of his "fog" starting on Sunday. Wear was critical to UCLA's ability to force overtime in the first game because of his ability to force USC's junior post Dewayne Dedmon (7'0" 255 lbs.) out of the paint in order to account for Wear's jumper. If Wear is off, it takes away from UCLA's ability to flow offensively and it allows Dedmon to sit in the paint, theoretically allowing him to alter shots from other Bruins as well as hit the defensive glass.
Speaking of rebounding, the Trojans out-rebounded the Bruins by 8 the first time they met and UCLA has clearly struggled in this category. Now, UCLA's rebounding deficit is somewhat skewed by the fact that UCLA has shot well in many games, limiting offensive board chances, but the reality is that UCLA is a poor rebounding team. This is an area that, if UCLA can mitigate it, could be critical to ensuring a UCLA victory.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that UCLA struggles on offense. Even though the identity of this Bruin team has been that it needs to outscore its opponent, this game would then come down to how UCLA plays on the defensive end of the floor. I've already written about Fontan's use of the ball screen to really hurt the Bruins in the first game between these two teams. It wasn't just Fontan's shooting that hurt, either. His ability to get into the paint at will forced other Bruins to slide over and help (which they didn't do particularly well) and Fontan simply kicked the ball out to open shooters. If Drew and Norman Powell can limit Fontan's ability to get into the lane then USC, a team that already struggles a bit to score, will find points hard to come by. However, there are other match-ups that UCLA needs to pay attention to in order to be successful.
One of the more recent match-ups that has indicated UCLA's success or failure as a team has been the one that involves Kyle Anderson against the opposition's power forward. As Anderson has gained more experience he has been much more competent at guarding opposing ‘4's. However, he has been more successful against forwards that rely on athleticism rather than strength. Anderson is a very smart player and has developed ways to offset those who seek to exploit their athletic advantage against Anderson. As an example, look to how Anderson handled Stanford's athletic ‘4' Josh Huestis last weekend. In spite of his growth, though, Anderson still struggles against more physical forwards. That doesn't necessarily bode well for this game. USC's Eric Wise (6'6" 240 lbs.) clearly relies offensively more on brawn rather than quickness. He outplayed Anderson in the first meeting by the tune of 12 point and 11 rebounds. Wise continues to be USC's leading scorer at 12 PPG and pulls down almost 6 RPG. On top of that, he can hit the outside shot. However, it was his ability to use his strength to drive against Anderson in the first game that caused the Bruin frosh real problems.
It didn't help the Bruin cause in their first match-up with the Bruins that Trojan senior Aaron Fuller (6'6" 235 lbs.) had a career game. He almost single-handedly was responsible for USC 8-point halftime lead in that game. Howland and the Bruins can't be caught off-guard by Fuller's play again. Fuller is the first player off of Cantu's bench, and that actually raises another possible game-changing issue.
If you thought that UCLA wasn't deep, with Howland using only two bench players as well as Tony Parker sparingly, then you'll be shocked at USC's lack of depth. With junior Ari Stewart (6'7" 205 lbs.) out because of injury, Fuller is really USC's only bench player. Because of the week off between games, USC shouldn't be a victim of fatigue even if Cantu essentially only plays six guys. However, should USC find itself in foul trouble then it could really tilt the balance of the game in the favor of the Bruins. UCLA got to the foul line 25 times in the first meeting between the two squads and Fontan, in particular, was in second half foul trouble. Obviously, if Fontan gets in foul trouble it will be devastating to USC chances in this game because there really isn't a back-up point guard. But even if Fontan remains free of foul trouble, if any other Trojan picks up a couple of early fouls then Cantu's ability to utilize his bench would be seriously limited.
If Fontan should be on the bench for any reason, Cantu has tended to use junior guard J.T. Terrell (6'3" 185 lbs.) or sophomore Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.) as the emergency point guard. Having either on the point hurts the Trojans beyond just losing Fontan's true point skills. It takes away from these two guards' ability to themselves score. This would be especially hard on Terrell as the Wake Forest transfer has been scoring at a 13.6 PPG clip in conference play. Forcing him to become a distributor rather than a shooter would help UCLA's cause.
Finally, turnovers could be a major factor in the outcome, specifically UCLA's ability to limit them (they have the best turnovers-per-game average in the conference) and USC's average of 14 TPG. The Trojans have done a better job recently of taking care of the ball, having fewer than 14 turnovers in their past three games, but they had 17 the last time these teams met, while the Bruins only had 7. If the Bruins can have that kind of turnover disparity again then it will dramatically help. In fact, in the first contest it was this turnover difference (along with the free throw disparity) that allowed the Bruins to offset the rebounding advantage USC had as well as their own poor (32%) shooting for the game.
In spite of all of these possible match-up issues, the one thing to keep in mind is just how poorly UCLA played for much of the game at Pauley. Despite this, the Bruins had a realistic chance to win at the end and in overtime. I have spent all year trying to figure out what kind of effort the Bruins would bring to a particular game and have gotten to the point of flipping a coin. More than anything else, if the Bruins bring a relatively intense effort to the game then all the match-up issues I've written about will be positively influenced in UCLA's favor. That includes UCLA's defensive effort and the team's shooting percentage.
Predicting this team has been an effort in futility, but here goes; I can't imagine UCLA playing with as poor an effort as they did the first time these teams played. In spite of their freshmen clearly playing on an effort roller coaster, all of the Bruins should be up for this game simply because of USC having beaten the Bruins at Pauley. Further, the Bruins should recognize the urgency needed in this game because of its impact on the conference race. Obviously it would be helpful if Adams continues his shooting from the Stanford game and Muhammad rebounds and passes like he did in the same contest. However, if the Bruins play with the kind of effort they need then many things should take care of themselves.
A victory in this game is critical to UCLA's conference title hopes, especially with the Arizona schools coming to Pauley next week.
Addendum to Preview
With Travis Wear doubtful for the game, look for UCLA's fortunes today to be illustrated by Larry Drew II's play. As he goes, specifically his ability (or inability) to stretch the defense, more than likely so goes the Bruins' chances. With Travis (probably) out, look for USC to now essentially double both Muhammad and Adams.
Also, look for Kyle Anderson's play to become that much more magnified.
David Wear's play will obviously be important, he just can't consistently hit the mid-range jumper like his brother can. Hopefully he plays within himself and doesn't become a black hole on offense. One thing: David seems to be more of a natural rebounder than Travis. How much more so remains to be seen.
USC also dominated the paint the first time around, so without Travis, you'd have to think USC has an even bigger advantage inside.
I don't know that I want to stick with my original game prediction...