After a very ugly win over Washington State, and a big thank-you to Norman Powell and Tony Parker, the UCLA Bruins take to the court on Wednesday night when they host crosstown rival USC in their final regular season game (6 PM; ESPN 2).
This game is a must-win for the Bruins as they continue with their quest for an NCAA Tournament bid. The season is essentially over for USC, with the game against UCLA and then probably only one game in the Pac 12 Tournament left. However, because this is a pride game for the Trojans, and the Bruins need to beware of a letdown. USC will certainly remember the absolute beatdown the Bruins gave them in January at the Galen Center, where the Bruins won by 17 in a game that wasn’t that close.
Honestly, though, UCLA would have to play an epically poor game, as in worse than the majority of last weekend’s Wazzu game, coupled with a very good game from the Trojans, for USC to have any real shot. The likelihood of UCLA playing that poorly and USC playing that well is slim-to-none and slim has one foot out the exit door.
That’s because USC is very, very bad, as in one of the worst teams in major college basketball. A quick check of the other major power leagues shows that USC could easily lose to every one of those conferences’ bottom-feeders.
On top of that, USC has lost arguably its most important player for the remainder of the season. Freshman Jordan McLaughlin (6’1” 170 lbs.) is out with an injury and, the win over a bad Washington team last weekend aside, the team is considerably worse without him.
Trojan basketball fans (all 200 of them) might point to the team’s ability to get up for a big game, of which the UCLA game is one, and they will use the win over Washington as an example, but the Trojans were not good in that game. They barely shot over 40% from the field, held negligible rebounding and turnover advantages and missed 12 out of 20 free throws. Against most teams, that would spell a sizable loss, but USC was playing a bad Washington team that has essentially given up on the season and, for that game, were missing their best player. Washington shot less than 30% from the floor for the game and it wasn’t because of USC’s defense.
The talent disparity between UCLA and USC right now is significant. UCLA has certainly underachieved this season when looking at the talent on its roster and the comparative lack of talent throughout the conference. To put UCLA’s talent in perspective, the Bruins were the only Pac-12 team to truly give Arizona a game in Tucson and the Bruins played poorly for much of that game. By comparison, USC’s roster is filled with many bodies who probably wouldn’t be scholarship players at all but one or two other conference schools. Sophomore post Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 230 lbs.) is a solid player who has been asked to be the offensive go-to guy in many games. That simply is not in his skill set, certainly not on a consistent basis. He was thoroughly outplayed in the earlier game against UCLA by Tony Parker and Kevon Looney. The talent disparity between the two Bruins and the entirety of the USC front line is so great that even if one of Parker or Looney is off on Wednesday, the Bruins should still hold a sizable advantage over the Trojan posts.
Fellow sophomore, wing Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 205 lbs.), may be the second-leading active scorer on the squad, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. He is a decent three-point shooter, at 36%, but his overall shooting percentage is less than that. He is the perfect example of a player who often can shoot his team out of games. If Bruin fans think that UCLA has often played without discipline this season they should really watch USC. Reinhardt, frankly, makes Bryce Alford look highly selective with his shots.
Since McLaughlin’s injury, Enfield has moved sophomore Julian Jacobs (6’4” 180 lbs.) to the point. He was very good against Washington but he has struggled in general with the position switch, especially with decision-making. He’s a good shooter when he gets in the paint but really struggles from distance, at 28% from behind the arc. Losing McLaughlin has also hurt USC’s defense, with the freshman being USC’s best perimeter defender. Now Jacobs has been thrust into that role and he is simply not as effective.
Freshman Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.) has great upside and is a very good athlete but he has had a rough freshmen campaign. Still, he has ability and he could be a real thorn in the side of the Bruins. However, the chances of that happening are not great.
Outside of Jovanovic, Reinhardt, Jacobs and Stewart, USC really has little talent, and of the four aforementioned players, none of them has an edge in a one-on-one match-up with their Bruin counterparts. UCLA has a big advantage in the paint and the Trojans have no one on the roster that can guard Norman Powell. Heck, the Trojans don’t have two players on the roster who can successfully and consistently double the Bruin senior.
There is a perceivable team-wide lack of discipline and accountability, like in Reinhardt’s ultimate green light, and that has to be due to the lack of quality coaching the Trojans receive, both in terms of individual skill work and tactical understanding of the game. In short, USC’s Andy Enfield is clearly in over his professional head at this level. Again, for all the criticism that UCLA’s Steve Alford has received this season, his abilities as a game coach are better than Enfield’s by a wide margin.
Again, it would be shocking to see this game come out in any other way other than a comfortable Bruin victory.
That begs the question of where that would leave the Bruins entering next week’s Pac 12 Tournament.
If UCLA loses unexpectedly to the Trojans then the Bruins would have to earn the automatic NCAA bid that comes with the conference tournament championship or they won’t be dancing.
However, if the Bruins win as expected, they will be 19-12 (early congratulations to BRO’s resident prognosticator, Tracy Pierson, for being right on again when it comes to UCLA’s overall record) and then the fun begins.
UCLA undoubtedly, minimally, has to win its next two games -- against USC and the first-round Pac 12 Tournament game against Stanford. That would leave the Bruins with a 20-12 record, including 3 wins against Stanford, a win against Oregon and a win against Utah. Further, the Bruins would only have one “bad” loss, to Colorado, and because it was on the road, it won’t hurt nearly as much.
If UCLA makes it to the Pac-12 semifinals, it will almost assuredly face Arizona. Assuming the wins over USC and Stanford, a win over the Wildcats would lock an NCAA bid in place for the Bruins and probably even get them out of the Dayton play-in games. A loss to the Wildcats would leave the Bruins sweating right up to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. It says something to the state of this year’s “bubble” and to the state of college basketball in general that this UCLA team, with no good non-conference wins and only one somewhat good road win, at Stanford, would probably be roughly 50/50 to get into the NCAAs with a 20-13 record after a loss to Arizona. Obviously that number will change based on the outcomes of the games next week and as well as the results in multiple conference tournaments.
Another area of interest will again be the attendance, or lack thereof at the game. It is the final home game of the season and a chance to send off Norman Powell with a gesture of appreciation. The feeling is that Pauley Pavilion has been rather empty this season, and it would be a shame if Powell plays his final game in front of a sparse crowd. There may be no other Bruin in recent memory that has endured so much as a player because of the idiosyncrasies of the coaches he played under. However, perhaps the potential sparseness of the crowd is a message that needs to be sent to the UCLA administration, and it won’t be taken as a slight toward a Bruin who deserves reverence and respect.
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