Though some may be distracted by the buzz surrounding UCLA football recruiting over the last week, there is a basketball game at Pauley Pavilion on Sunday afternoon that has some juicy plot lines. Coach Steve Alford's Bruins host Andy Enfield's USC Trojans in the Pac 12 opener for both programs. The game is scheduled to tip-off at Noon PST and will be televised by Fox Sports 1.
Alford and Enfield are two of the bigger individual plot lines of the game. Both are new to their respective positions and have generated some controversy for different reasons. Alford's missteps at the beginning of his tenure, specifically in his first press conference, have been well chronicled. Enfield, on the other hand, has prompted controversy on several fronts. This has included lobbing verbal salvos at UCLA and Alford that could only be taken as negative and derogatory. Regardless of what Alford may say publically, this game probably holds a bit more import for him than most.
Enfield has taken the natural rivalry with UCLA head-on and run with it. He has gotten the commitment of point guard Jordan McLaughlin, an important UCLA target, and been vocal about the quality of his team and schedule, particularly when compared with UCLA. Additionally, whether or not USC's fans want to admit it, UCLA currently has the upper hand in the overall rivalry. UCLA, at this point, clearly has the upper hand in the three major sports: football, men's basketball, and baseball. The UCLA football team has won the past two games against the Trojans and the Bruin baseball team just won the national championship. The one area left where USC can slow or stop UCLA's momentum is in men's basketball. Make no mistake: USC can clearly win Sunday's tilt.
USC comes into the game with a record of 9-4, including impressive wins over Xavier on a neutral court and at Dayton. Both wins are better than anything on UCLA's current resume. Enfield came to USC with a reputation for fast play from his few seasons as the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast. However, he doesn't have the players yet to run his preferred 94-foot running style, so USC's success this season has been built on defense and rebounding. The Trojans are limiting their opponents to barely 40% shooting from the field and 30% shooting from behind the arc. They are outrebounding their opponents by an average of 4 rebounds per game and are averaging over 40 RPG as a team. In terms of similarities, USC is a bit of a cross between Alabama, who UCLA just beat, and Missouri, who defeated the Bruins last month. The Trojans are physical and the bet is that they will play with a chip on their shoulders. This should be a very competitive game.
In terms of individuals, Enfield is starting to solidify his rotation and it has become basically seven players getting the majority of the minutes. The clear leader of the team is junior wing Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.). Wesley leads the team in scoring at 17 PPG and is tied for the team rebounding lead at 7.2 RPG. He takes good care of the ball, averaging just under 2 turnovers per contest, but considering how much the ball is in his hands, that's pretty solid. Frankly, he is quick and athletic enough that he'll give UCLA's Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams fits. He is smart enough and strong enough to do the same to Zach LaVine. Taking Wesley out of his comfort zone may require some imagination on Alford's part. More on that later.
The point guard is Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard (6'3" 190 lbs.) who is averaging 11 PPG. In Enfield's offense he actually doubles as the two guard, but he does lead the team in assists on the season with 57, although he does have 37 turnovers. He's crafty and, while he played erratically to begin the season, he is finding a groove. He's not a great shooter, averaging less than 39% from the field, but his game is predicated on getting to the paint and either finishing or getting fouled. He is a 73% free throw shooter.
The other guard in Enfield's starting line-up is freshman Julian Jacobs (6'3" 180 lbs.). Jacobs will take on some of the point guard duties and has 55 assists on the season, but he has 42 turnovers. He will occasionally run the point, particularly when Howard flips to the two. Enfield likes to have Jacobs on the floor because he is arguably USC's best on-ball defender. He and Howard have combined for 31 steals on the season and he has been as responsible as anyone for being able to limit the production of opposing teams' backcourts. While his shooting has been right about on par with Howard's, Jacobs is much less polished than his senior teammate. However, he has shown some surprising athleticism for a player who wasn't considered a high-level recruit coming out of Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas.
The frontcourt is manned by senior Omar Oraby (7'2" 270 lbs.) and Serbian freshman Nikola Jovanovic (6'10" 215 lbs.). If Oraby is allowed to set up shop in the low post on a consistent basis then he will hurt the Bruins, much like middling post players from Oakland and Morehead State have done previously this season. Oraby isn't much of an athlete but he is a load inside. He is averaging 9.5 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while shooting 64% from the field. His scoring numbers would be much better if he were averaging better than 63% from the foul line. However, most importantly, he has become a rim protector for the Trojans, allowing Enfield to extend his man pressure defense knowing he has a shot blocker in the paint. Oraby has 37 blocks on the season. He alone will make it difficult for UCLA to score inside.
Jovanovic has been a bit of a revelation the past several weeks. He has an inside/out game that allows the Trojans to spread the floor in the halfcourt offense. His 10 PPG average comes mostly from his ability to work in the paint, but he has hit enough shots from distance to keep opponents honest. He is also averaging 5.6 RPG. Anderson and the Wear brothers will have to pay attention to the young Serb or he will hurt the Bruins. In fact, the possibility of Jovanovic causing damage from outside may pull UCLA's bigs to the perimeter, thus opening things up more inside for Oraby or for one of the wings to drive to the hoop.
Senior D.J. Haley (7'0" 250 lbs.) provides frontcourt depth and should play 15-20 minutes on Sunday depending on foul trouble with the starters, and sophomore Chass Bryan (5'9" 165 lbs.) gets a few minutes here and there because of his ability to run the point for short spurts. However, Haley is nothing more than a somewhat serviceable back-up and Bryan's minutes are so limited as to not consider him part of the "serious" rotation.
The one player off the bench the Bruins will have to worry about is senior wing J.T. Terrell (6'3" 185 lbs.). Terrell provides significant scoring punch off the bench to the tune of 10.8 PPG but that figures to rise as he gets back into game shape after missing all but the last five games. He hasn't shot well yet this season, but he has the capability, more than any of his teammates, of getting hot and scoring 15-20 points, especially from beyond the arc.
Although USC has surpassed early season expectations, the Trojans have some serious holes. It's true that USC has proven to be pretty good on defense and the Trojans rebound well, but the reality is that they don't have a true floor general and they are terrible at taking care of the ball, which is an area the Bruins tend to exploit. Including the cupcakes on their schedule, the Trojans are averaging about 14 turnovers per game.
UCLA has shown a bit more bite on defense in the Bruins' last two games, against Weber State and Alabama, but those moments have come in fits and spurts. In order to negate the specific issues that USC brings to the game, Alford may have to think outside the box. While I don't know if Alford will do the following, it would be sensible to at least consider it: have UCLA's best defender, Norman Powell, take on the assignment of Wesley. Powell is the only Bruin who has consistently shown an interest in playing defense and, quite frankly, he is a better athlete than Wesley. That should negate the one-inch height advantage Wesley has over Powell. Further, it means that the rest of the Bruins, specifically Anderson, Lavine, and Adams, don't have to guard Wesley. Each of those three has been a below average defender this year. In Anderson's case, not guarding Wesley means he will have a better chance of remaining near the basket on defense, which should help UCLA rebound.
If Alford has really watched USC at all this season, he'll have seen that the Trojans are a poor outside shooting team. They average 31% from distance and have continued to struggle in that area even recently. That should push the Bruins to play a good deal of zone. The issue with the zone, however, is that it will make UCLA less effective on the boards and USC's ability on the glass could very well be the difference in this game.
The bulletin-board material that Enfield provided the Bruins a few months ago should be a motivating force, at least somewhat. Although we as fans would like to think that these players shouldn't need any added motivation to win a basketball game, the reality is that isn't often true, so any added incentive can and should be used. It remains to be seen how fired up the Bruins will be because of Enfield's comments, but Alford would be remiss if he hasn't brought them up a few times over the past few days.
The hope for the Bruins is that USC actually does want a track meet. USC would more than likely get run out of Pauley if that became the case. The Trojans simply don't have the personnel to play that kind of game and keep their defensive intensity up.
Whenever UCLA and its much talked about offense have played teams with solid to good defenses this season, the Bruin offense has sputtered. Until that changes, we would expect games like this to come down to how motivated the Bruins are to win. They can be sure that the Trojans will come into the game hungry to prove their young coach correct with his preseason comments. Regardless, expect a very close game.
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