With a 6-3 Pac 12 Conference record, the UCLA Bruins have positioned themselves for a bit of a run over the course of the second half of the conference season. It was well-established that the Arizona Wildcats were the class of the Pac 12, but that perception has changed a bit with Brandon Ashley's season-ending foot injury. Arizona is vulnerable. UCLA is positioned, albeit not well, to overtake the Wildcats should they falter in the closing stages of the regular season.
The first game of the second half of the conference season is critical to UCLA's ability to build momentum going into the conference and NCAA Tournaments. That game will take place on Saturday night when UCLA travels to South Central to take on the USC Trojans at the Galen Center (7:30 PM, Pac-12 Network).
UCLA blew a chance this past weekend to truly put heat on Arizona and truly secure second place in the conference when the Bruins lost to Oregon State. UCLA played limply both in effort and execution, and the coaching didn't help in the 71-67 loss. It was especially disappointing because the Bruins won the first game of the Oregon road trip at the Ducks, which was supposed to be the more difficult game.
The Trojans enter the contest with their season record basically falling apart. After a 9-4 non-conference start to the year, which was far better than most predicted, the Trojans have gone 1-8 in the first half of the conference schedule. Quite frankly, the 9-4 start was a bit of an aberration, as Coach Andy Enfield was able to get his team, for the most part, to play over their collective heads. However, the 1-8 conference record is probably not a good indicator of the Trojans, either. They lost two games in a row in overtime and only by 8 points at Berkeley. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Trojans do not appear to have given up on the season. Enfield has them playing hard and they are still listening to him. How much longer they will do that this season remains to be seen, but the Trojans should certainly be motivated for Saturday's game. This will be the second meeting of the season between these crosstown LA rivals and the Trojans were simply embarrassed in the first meeting at Pauley Pavilion in January, with the Bruins wining 107-73.
The key to the game against the Trojans is going to be the play of the Trojan post players. Senior post Omar Oraby (7'2" 270 lbs.) and freshman post Nikola Jovanovic (6'10" 215) were basically impotent in that game. Oraby was saddled with early fouls and an ankle injury, both of which forced him to miss much of the first half, when the game was essentially decided. Jovanovic had been playing solid ball up to the UCLA game and simply came up empty against the Bruins.
However, if Oraby is on, he will cause the Bruins a great deal of trouble. It's not his 6.5 RPG or his 9.1 PPG that are game changers for the Trojans, but rather his 54 blocks on the season. If Oraby can stay in the game then he will make life difficult on UCLA's post trio of the Wear twins and Tony Parker. They could simply be manhandled by Oraby, especially on the offensive boards.
Jovanovic should be less of a threat as his face-up game is more conducive to being guarded by UCLA's bigs. The biggest threat posed by Jovanovic is his ability to step outside and hit the three-point shot. That would draw a rebounder away from the glass, and if it's UCLA's Kyle Anderson, that could spell trouble.
Enfield really only plays a six-player rotation in terms of allotted minutes, and the remaining four players are all wings and guards. The best of the four is junior wing Byron Wesley (6'5" 210 lbs.). He leads the team in the scoring at 16.9 PPG and has, for the most part, played pretty well in big games. He didn't have a good game at Pauley earlier in the year and will certainly be ready to make amends at home.
Senior guard J.T. Terrell (6'3" 185 lbs.) has finally entered the starting line-up after having missed part of the season and then coming off the bench once he returned. Terrell has the ability to shoot his team into great runs or shoot them out of games. Unfortunately for the Trojans, all too often this season, Terrell has done the latter. He was another player who struggled the first time USC faced the Bruins. He is averaging 10.4 PPG, but he is struggling at under 40% from the floor and from behind the arc.
The point guard is senior Maryland transfer, Pe'Shon Howard (6'3" 190 lbs.), and, speaking of struggles, the first time these teams faced off, Howard had plenty. He finished scoreless in that game, which seems to have been an anomaly. He is averaging 10.3 PPG and leads the team with 94 assists. Howard, who is strong but not terribly athletic, has to play well for the Trojans to even have a chance. Expect UCLA's Norman Powell to guard him when UCLA is in its man defense.
The final player to see significant minutes is freshman Julian Jacobs (6'3" 180 lbs.). While Jacobs has decent talent, he shouldn't be logging the 20+ minutes per game he is currently playing. Further, he shouldn't be starting on a solid college team, at least not yet. He had a pretty fair game against the Bruins the first time these teams met, finishing with 10 points and generally being pretty active on both ends of the floor. Still, he is overmatched many times by the talent he is being asked to guard and against the Bruins it should be no different.
The one thing that these four wing players have had in common all season is their inability to shoot the ball with any consistency. Wesley is hitting on 45% of his shots and that is by far the best of the wing players on the squad. However, he is only shooting 31% from behind the arc. The rest of the wings have shooting percentages in the 30s. The real downfall, though, is USC's ability to hit an outside shot. They hit 29% of their threes as a team. That's very poor.
Based on that, it appears UCLA's Coach Steve Alford went to an exclusive zone defense one week too early. However, UCLA has proved that it is a much better team when playing man defense. It generally makes the Bruins more intense and focused on both ends of the floor.
Although the Bruins blew the doors off USC in the first match-up this season, this game has a different feel about it.
First, the game is at the Galen Center and UCLA has had significant trouble there since the building opened. Second, this UCLA team tends to struggle on the road and for whatever reason, it doesn't matter the venue or distance from Westwood.
USC should come out very intense and fast, and much will depend on how calm and composed UCLA is to start the game. UCLA's talent advantage should begin to show at a certain point in the game, but the question will be whether it will be enough to overcome USC's initial flurry.
That said, the biggest mismatch in the game will come down in UCLA's favor. The Trojans simply don't have anyone who can guard Kyle Anderson. In fact, I fully expect to see USC utilize a zone in order to keep Anderson from carving them up, and because UCLA hasn't shot well away from Pauley Pavilion all season.
Still, UCLA should win this game and do so relatively handily. However, after this past Wednesday's NSD letdown and last weekend's loss in Corvallis, can you imagine the venom in Los Angeles towards this team and specifically towards Alford if UCLA somehow manages to lose this game?
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