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UCLA vs. USC Preview

Jan. 13 -- UCLA will face a tough test from a surprisingly tough USC team tonight...

After the sweep that it needed this past weekend, the UCLA Bruins now face an equally critical contest on Wednesday night against a suddenly formidable USC squad (8 PM PST, ESPN2). This game is close to a must-win for the Bruins for a variety of reasons. The 14-3 (3-1) Trojans sit a game ahead of the Bruins in the Pac 12 standings. UCLA has to go on the road after this game to the Oregon schools in what promises to be two difficult tests. The Trojans are on the cusp of actually making the intra-city games an actual rivalry, and that could affect recruiting.

The Trojans are actually pretty good this year so credit needs to be given to Head Coach Andy Enfield. While their schedule has been nowhere near as difficult as the Bruins’, they have defeated Monmouth (and lost to the Hawks as well), as well as Wichita State (who was without Fred Van Vleet) and only lost to the aforementioned Monmouth and Xavier in the non-conference season and to Washington two weekends ago, in a game where the Trojans had a 22-point lead at one point.

However, the key to this contest might be USC’s last game, a 4-overtime win over Arizona. It was eerily similar in regulation to the Arizona/UCLA game two nights before in that USC had a very comfortable lead with less than 6 minutes left to go and proceeded to go into full meltdown mode. Arizona was also terribly handicapped in overtime by the injury to leading scorer Allonzo Trier, which was later learned to be a broken hand that will sideline him until roughly the Pac 12 Conference Tournament. To USC’s credit, the Trojans won the game, regardless of the specifics. By the time the game went into the third overtime it was obvious to anyone who’s been involved in athletics as a player or coach that losing could have a very long aftereffect. By the time it went to the fourth overtime, even the winner might suffer from the emotional rush of that game, and, quite frankly, there is every reason to believe that the three halves of basketball the Trojans played on Saturday will affect them on Wednesday. How it will affect them remains to be seen -- it could have been such a high that even getting up for their crosstown rivals will be difficult, or, it could be an emotional springboard to greater things, including a win on Wednesday.

Enfield was the laughingstock of Pac 12 coaches last season; however, this season, no one is laughing. While the Trojans have holes in their games, both individually and as a collective team, Enfield has finally assembled enough talent and harnessed that talent in such a way as to get the Trojans to play well.

USC likes to play fast, take good shots, rebound well and force turnovers. Granted, the statistics were compiled against a mostly weak non-conference schedule, but they are what they are. 47% from the floor, 41% from behind the arc, over 200 turnovers forced, a three rebound per game advantage over the opposition. Those are the statistics, and, outside of the first half against Xavier, when the Trojans were a dumpster fire, they have looked solid-to-good in every contest. Again, that’s a testament to coaching.

It helps a team when it has talent and USC finally has some. It starts with sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin (6’1” 170 lbs.). He is one of 5 Trojans who average between 12 and 13 PPG. Although he’s technically a point guard, Enfield’s way of playing this year has McLaughlin playing almost a hybrid 1, along with junior guard Julian Jacobs (6’4” 180 lbs.). They will take turns running the offense.

McLaughlin has been excellent from distance this season, shooting 45%, but his defense has been a revelation this season. While he has been much better than his injury-shortened freshman season, he is not necessarily the engine that drives Enfield’s team.

Jacobs is also enjoying a much better season, although his shooting percentage is far below McLaughlin’s. However, he has enjoyed some very good games, especially when teams allow him to attack the basket. Further, he is a very disruptive defender and causes turnovers.

Chances are that Aaron Holiday will guard one of these two, with Isaac Hamilton the other. McLaughlin must be forced to put the ball on the floor while Jacobs should be enticed into long jump shots. Neither is necessarily a recipe for success, but that gives UCLA the best odds.

Working from the outside in, the starting small forward is junior Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 220 lbs.). Reinhardt is a very one-dimensional player, focusing on his outside shot. He is the epitome of a player that must be forced to put the ball on the floor in order to be successfully defended. There’s a big difference between his effectiveness offensively when he’s able to set his feet versus when he has to move. He is a defensive liability and doesn’t rebound well for the position, but his ability to really stretch the floor is undeniable. His shot selection may be questionable, but if he gets hot from outside then he’s really going to force the Bruins to extend, thus opening the interior for penetration by the likes of Jacobs and McLaughlin. However, because of his shot selection, he is liable to also cost the Trojans possessions.

The Trojans have a fairly unique stretch ‘four’ in freshman Bennie Boatwright (6’10” 220 lbs.), who is almost as much of an outside shooter as Reinhardt. His game is almost entirely built from the outside-in, which means the Bruins could be doing a great deal of chasing in this game. It is questionable whether Tony Parker or Thomas Welsh can properly chase the Trojan frosh. In Jonah Bolden, the Bruins have the prototypical perfect defender to go at Boatwright, but if he gets extended minutes then that means one of Parker or Welsh will be out of the game for stretches. There just doesn’t seem to be a realistic scenario for success that doesn’t see at least three backcourt players on the floor for the Bruins because of the defensive needs. Boatwright is not physically strong yet and as a result he doesn’t rebound quite as well as Enfield would like from the power forward spot and while he blocks shots, he can be physically moved off the block quite easily.

The post is manned by junior Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 235 lbs.) who has been a starter since the day he set foot on campus. He is the only true low post presence in Enfield’s rotation. Like the other starters, he averages a little over 12 PPG but leads the team in rebounding at 7.7 RPG and is second in blocks, closely followed by Boatwright. Jovanovic may be the key. UCLA may see the return of Gyorgy Goloman to go along with the four (if you count Alex Olesinski) existing post players for the Bruins and as a result the Bruins should have an advantage in the low post. If there has been a consistent time the Trojans have struggled this season, it’s when Jovanovic has been off the floor. Getting him in early foul trouble will certainly help the Bruins and really force the Trojans into a less disciplined, outside-dominated game.

Although Enfield does have a 7-to-8-player rotation, the one real threat off the bench is sophomore guard Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.). He was a starter at the beginning of the season but has spent the past several weeks being the sixth man, allowing Reinhardt to move into the starting line-up. This made sense as Stewart can essentially substitute in for any of the positions outside of the low post. His game has actually gotten better since coming off the bench and he is now one of the two most dangerous outside shooters on the team along with McLaughlin. He is also a solid rebounder for his size and has been more of a disruptive force on defense. He is essentially USC’s version of Prince Ali, with a little more offense, similar athletic ability and a bit more experience.

Those six players really provide for a tough line-up to defend.

But that isn’t the end. The Trojans have true freshmen Chimezie Metu (6’11” 215), who is a defensive force, leading the team in blocks, and provides defensive cover for Jovanovic. Metu clearly is raw on the offensive end, but his ability to change a game on defense is significant.

When looking at these seven players, you might wonder how USC has even lost three games. Remember, the Trojans are young, and Enfield still has the capacity to be a negative equalizer for his squad. His pressing, ball-denial defense is a turnover-causing, havoc-wreaking style…when it works. When it hasn’t worked, like against Xavier or the second Monmouth game, Enfield hasn’t proven to have a ‘plan B.’ USC is certainly more athletic than UCLA, but they are not capable of the kind of discipline UCLA can display when the Bruins actually display it. If there were an opponent outside of Washington where UCLA would clearly have a coaching advantage, this is it.

Speaking of the Huskies, the mention of them is a nice segue into what UCLA will be facing. USC very much resembles Lorenzo Romar’s Washington squad, from the raw athleticism, to the types of players who start and come off the bench, to the frenzied style of play and to the coaching. The difference between the two, in spite of the fact that Washington beat the Trojans two weeks ago, is that USC has a much better offense.

So, very much like the Washington game, there will be three keys for the Bruins to emerge victorious. The first is turnovers, which UCLA committed a ton of on the Northwest road trip. Essentially, UCLA lost the Washington game because of turnovers. If UCLA keeps them to a reasonable number, then chances are the Bruins win the game. If not, then the Washington outcome will probably be a precursor to Wednesday night’s outcome.

The second key will be rebounding. The Trojans have been statistically good on the boards but that masks some issues. Jovanovic is the only truly ‘good’ rebounder on the squad, and when the Trojans have played more elite competition, they have suffered more on the glass. UCLA has been pretty solid with rebounding this season, but this game it takes on added importance. With UCLA’s halfcourt offensive capability theoretically being more efficient, being able to both get offensive boards and keep USC from doing the same will be critical.

Finally, there is the effort, focus and intensity that the Bruins bring to the floor. As with many things in life, all three of these keys are intertwined, as good focus by the Bruins has generally meant keeping turnovers down and rebounding well. The Bruins were focused against the Wildcats last week (until the last few minutes) and really competed against the Sun Devils. Now the Bruins will be asked to do that again and there is still the lingering question as to whether the Bruins will do that for a third straight game.

USC will certainly be up for this contest. The Trojans were embarrassed in all encounters with the Bruins last season and Jovanovic, the real veteran on the squad, hasn’t had much team success against UCLA. This is a young USC squad, one that has everyone of significance returning next season meaning this battle for Los Angeles is only going to get more intense over the next 18 months.

For all the things the Trojans do well, one of the areas they struggle is defending the post and playing solid halfcourt man-to-man defense. The Trojans tend to take too many chances going for steals, are generally late on rotations and even get caught on a regular basis out of their defensive stances. The Bruins can certainly take advantage of that and it would explain things like giving up a big lead to Arizona last weekend before the overtime thriller.

There is no telling the mental state of either team, both because of USC’s aforementioned game against the Wildcats and how much, if anything, that may have mentally taken out of the team. The Bruins are a question mark because we just don’t know if the ‘good’ Bruins are going to show up.

There is no statistical category that really shows as a weakness for either side, so this game’s outcome may come down to which team wants it more. With so many things up in the air, trying to pick this game almost comes down to a gut feeling. I can truly see Enfield making some head-scratching decisions or non-decisions that end up costing the Trojans the game, but my gut is telling me that USC is going to be able to do the same thing to the Bruins that Washington did in terms of turnovers. It will be a high scoring affair, no doubt, but I just have this feeling that things won’t go the way of the Bruins.

USC 86

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