Pac-12 Tourney: USC Preview

Mar. 12 -- UCLA needs two wins to get off the bubble and get into the NCAA Tournament, and it starts with USC Thursday...

The fate of UCLA's postseason comes down to this week’s Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. Things are really quite simple for the Bruins: win at least two games this week and the Bruins are almost certainly in the NCAA Tournament.

The quest for an NCAA bid begins on Thursday when the 4th-seeded Bruins play the 12th-seeded USC Trojans (2:30 PM; Pac-12 Network).

USC got to this point because of an upset win over 5th-seeded Arizona State in the opening round on Wednesday. This included a furious second-half comeback by the Trojans that, in reality, masked their poorly-played first 30 minutes of the game. Many Bruin fans have already been lamenting the fact that UCLA has to play the Trojans for the third time this season and that a win over USC will do very little if anything to positively impact UCLA’s NCAA Tournament profile. The thinking was that a win over Arizona State on Thursday would help much more than a win over the Trojans. However, because of results from other games since UCLA’s victory over USC last week, the reality is that regardless of whom UCLA faced and presumably defeated in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, the Bruins have to beat Arizona in the semifinals in order to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Obviously, if UCLA wins on Thursday and Arizona is somehow knocked out of the Pac-12 Tourney by California then UCLA probably has to win the Pac-12 Tournament in order to get into the NCAA, but the likelihood of that happening is remote, although not impossible.

Before getting into the permutations of how things need to play out Friday and the rest of the weekend, though, UCLA first needs to beat the Trojans, who obviously will be feeling quite full of themselves after beating the Sun Devils.

The Bruins and the Trojans are very familiar with each other, having played just last week to close out their respective regular season schedules. In that game, the Bruins sort of did just enough to keep the Trojans at arms length even though the they didn’t play very well or with much intensity. That win showed just how wide the talent gap is between the two teams, but, like much of the conference season has shown, teams are very different animals when playing at home compared to on the road. With the win over ASU, the Trojans have showed they can step it up away from the Galen Center, while UCLA has only won a single road game of consequence -- at Stanford -- and that win doesn’t look nearly as good now as it did when the game occurred in January.

USC head coach Andy Enfield changed some things going into the Arizona State game, namely having sophomore Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 205 lbs.) come off the bench and going with a more athletic starting five. The move made some sense as the only thing Reinhardt potentially brought to the table was his ability to shoot, and he hadn’t done that well for most of the season. In fact, Enfield probably should have made that personnel move earlier in order to get his more athletic players some time experience playing with each other. That athleticism made quite a difference in the last 10 minutes of the ASU game. Because the Trojans have now experienced success with that new starting line-up, chances are that Enfield won’t change the script going into Thursday’s tilt.

It certainly helped the Trojans that freshman Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.) used Wednesday’s game against ASU as a sort of coming-out party. The athletic wing scored 27 points and was the best player on the floor. Stewart has shown brief glimpses of the talent that some scouts projected during his prep career, but nothing like what he did on Wednesday. (Many of those same scouts, namely our resident BRO ones, advocated UCLA take Stewart last spring; given what we saw of him against ASU, he certainly would have been a huge addition to this year’s team, especially with his athleticism on the perimeter.)

The reality is that despite the changes that Enfield made against ASU, Stewart still represents USC’s only possible game-changing player and taking him out of his comfort zone will probably ensure a UCLA victory. This is where UCLA head coach Steve Alford has to recognize that his senior first-team all-Pac 12 guard Norman Powell has to be assigned the responsibility of guarding Stewart from the outset. We understand that Alford probably doesn’t initially assign Powell to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player to keep Powell out of foul trouble, but if either Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton is assigned Stewart and the Trojan freshman is able to get on track early then it might not matter if Coach Alford switches Powell on to him later in the game.

It’s interesting how one such tactical decision could end up being so significant. With all the speculation swirling around Coach Alford’s future in Westwood, it probably wouldn’t be smart for him not to use his best defender to immediately make life difficult for the one weapon that USC has. If that contributes to UCLA losing to USC, the chorus to make a coaching change will become broader and louder this spring.

UCLA has a distinct advantage in the frontcourt with Tony Parker and Kevon Looney. One or both of the Bruin big men dominated in both previous match-ups with the Trojans this season. The Bruins should be getting the ball inside to either of them, as well as Thomas Welsh when he’s in the game, early and often. USC really has no answer for UCLA’s forwards, especially with the line-up change that Enfield instituted against ASU. Although the Trojans went with two 6’11” players in both sophomore Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 230 lbs.) and freshman Malik Martin (6’11” 220 lbs.), neither is very physical and both were pretty easily pushed around by Parker in the first two meetings of these teams. The Trojans were outrebounded pretty easily by the Sun Devils on Wednesday and UCLA is a much better rebounding team. In fact, the real reason that ASU lost beyond Stewart’s good game was because of Arizona State’s putrid shooting (35% for the game including just 30% in the second half). But then again, UCLA rebounded poorly against USC last week, barely edging them for the game, 30-29.

The one realy issue facing the Bruins in this game, as it seemingly has been all year, is UCLA’s intensity away from Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have started slowly in virtually every road game this season or have wilted when the host team made a run. Granted, the Pac-12 Tournament is taking place at a neutral site, but UCLA’s proclivity to pay with much less intensity away from Pauley is concerning and could even things up with the Trojans.

If UCLA is ever going to play with any intensity and sense of urgency on the road then it needs to start in earnest on Thursday. The Bruins are well aware that they are playing for their NCAA lives and that nothing less than two victories this weekend will do in terms of the goal of the getting a bid to the Big Dance. If the Bruins can’t muster the energy needed to at least defeat the worst team in the conference then they certainly don’t deserve to be going dancing.

However, even with a subpar effort, UCLA is not Arizona State and the talent disparity between the Bruins and Trojans is significant enough that UCLA should prevail. While UCLA hasn’t done well on the road, the Pac-12 Tournament is a neutral site, without a homecourt advantage of familiarity. So, on even ground, UCLA is just far superior in talent to USC. Still, the game could be closer than the first two as USC will play with some confidence and with a nothing-to-lose attitude. Further, you’d have to suspect that the Bruins will have one collective eye on the potential Friday match-up with Arizona.


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