PG Bryce Alford (USA Today)

UCLA vs. USC Preview

Feb. 4 -- For NCAA Tournament purposes, the game tonight against USC is a critical one...

The UCLA men’s basketball team faces its most crucial stretch of the season starting Thursday night when the Bruins travel across town to play the USC Trojans at the Galen Center (7:30 PM PST, Pac 12 Network). The Bruins will obviously have an opportunity to avenge an earlier loss against the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion from mid-January. More than that, though, UCLA is squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble and the outcome of this game will have a big impact on UCLA’s postseason prospects. The problem for the Bruins is that USC is an athletic squad, the type that’s given UCLA some real issues this season. Even if UCLA brings a sustained effort and focus to the game, will it be enough to offset what is a clear athletic advantage for the Trojans?

When trying to predict which teams will make the NCAA Tournament, one cannot get caught analyzing teams in a vacuum. The results of opponents, both past and future, must be analyzed, as well as respective strengths of schedule, locations of respective wins and losses, etc. To be blunt, the situation is always very fluid. Take the Bruins, for example: virtually every prognosticator of the NCAAs had UCLA either in the Big Dance or the first team out as late as this past Monday. That was the analysis with the knowledge that UCLA was 13-9, in the bottom half of the Pac 12 standings, but in possession of a nice collection of top-50 RPI wins and really only one ‘bad’ loss. At that point, the Bruins were sitting between 60-63 in the RPI, depending on whose RPI was being viewed.

Within the last couple of days, though, things have changed dramatically, and not for the better for the Bruins.

Tuesday night was an RPI/non-conference schedule disaster for UCLA. Every key non-conference team that UCLA played earlier this season (besides Gonzaga) played on Tuesday night and lost. That includes Kentucky, who fell apart at a bad Tennessee squad, UNLV, whose season continues to slide into mediocrity after the Rebels lost at New Mexico, and Wake Forest, who blew a sizable halftime lead in losing at home to Clemson.

Beating Kentucky still has luster but that shine gets significantly less with every loss the Wildcats suffer. In fact, there are some experts who are beginning to put forth a scenario where Kentucky misses the NCAAs. Kentucky’s best non-conference victory is against a Duke team that itself is struggling to secure an NCAA bid. While Duke won on Tuesday night, a quick look at its upcoming schedule reveals the real possibility that the Blue Devils could be staring at a 4-game losing streak. Regardless, the victory over the Wildcats doesn’t look as good for the Bruins as it did a few short weeks ago.

UNLV is what it has been all season: a poorly coached team with some real raw talent. Perhaps the Rebels can put things together in the latter part of the season but that seems unlikely. That win over UNLV in Maui is giving UCLA less and less of a boost over time.

Wake Forest’s collapse to the bottom of the ACC is the most disheartening. The Demon Deacons are 1-9 in the ACC, good for a tie with North Carolina State for next-to-last place, but, most importantly for UCLA, with Wake’s loss to Clemson on Tuesday, the loss in Hawaii now officially qualifies as a “bad” RPI loss, giving the Bruins two on the season (Washington State is the other) and dropping UCLA’s RPI into the mid-70s regardless of whose stats are being viewed.

USC is arguably the best team in the Pac 12 this season (with Oregon) and the scary thought is that the Trojans will not lose a single player to graduation after the season. They are currently in the top 20 RPI of every RPI publication and in the top 15 of some. Those statistics alone make the game a big one, but if you throw in the fact that it’s technically a road game, it’s even more important for UCLA’s resume.

The problem, though, is that UCLA may not be able to win this game regardless of the effort and focus brought to the floor because USC is simply a bad match-up for the Bruins.

USC’s athleticism advantage showed greatly in its 89-75 victory in mid-January. Specifically, the backcourt and the bench really hurt the Bruins. UCLA’s backcourt was outscored 51-31 in the game and the shooting disparity between the two was vast. The Trojan guards and wings combined to shoot roughly 46% from the floor while UCLA’s main backcourt scorers, specifically Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, combined to go 8-26. Those wildly different numbers were largely due to UCLA’s lack of effort and focus and USC’s significant athletic advantage in all backcourt match-ups that did not include Aaron Holiday and/or Prince Ali.

The key for the Bruins will be offsetting those advantages, and it starts with the effort and focus that the Bruins bring to the floor from the opening tip.

When UCLA blew out Washington State this past Saturday, the Bruins did so with perhaps their most sustained effort and focus of the season. As David Woods wrote in his game review, the Bruins didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in that game, which means UCLA’s defense, rebounding and overall effort were the reasons for the easy win. The problem for the Bruins is that translating that effort and focus to the USC game still may not yield the kind of results the Bruins need. Wazzu is noticeably less athletic than virtually every other team in the conference, let alone USC, so perhaps it would be better for the Bruins to look to the game before the Wazzu game, the loss to Washington, as a barometer for how effort and focus directly correlate to on-court success.

The UDub game from last week was perhaps UCLA’s most ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ game of the season. UCLA’s first half effort and focus were at their nadir for the season in the first half and as a result the Bruins found themselves down 18 to the Huskies at the half, the same deficit the Bruins faced at the half of the first match-up with the Trojans. However, UCLA stormed back with 15 minutes of real intensity in the second half. UCLA proved it can dominate an athletic team when it puts its collective mind to it, and Washington and USC are pretty similar athletically.

It’s hard to count on that level of effort and focus, though, when we’ve seen such inconsistency from the Bruins this year. And, although the Huskies have similar athletic attributes to the Trojans, the big difference between the two teams, and the statistic that makes the Trojans a really bad match-up for the Bruins, is USC’s ability to take and make three-point shots.

The four guards/wings that make-up the Trojan perimeter all have qualities that can cause real damage to the Bruins. Juniors Julian Jacobs (6’4” 180 lbs.) and Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 220 lbs.) along with sophomores Jordan McLaughlin (6’1” 170 lbs.) and Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.) all looked like All-Americans the last time these teams met, but much of that had to do with the match-ups. McLaughlin and Reinhardt are the team’s two leading scorers and it is because they can hit the ‘3’ with regularity. McLaughlin is a good outside shooter while Reinhardt is solid, although he is a high volume shooter who generally doesn’t do well with shooting off the dribble.

Stewart, who comes off the bench, is the best outside shooter on the team and also brings high quality intensity and ability to the defensive end. He plays the minutes of a starter. Stewart, McLaughlin, and Reinhardt combined for 44 points the first time these teams met.

Jacobs shares the point guard duties with McLaughlin and although he shoots the ball in general at the same clip as McLaughlin, Jacobs is the one Trojan in the main rotation that doesn’t shoot well from the arc. Jacobs is the unquestioned leader of the team, though, and he has had games, like the first one against the Bruins, where he is good simply because he makes his teammates better.

These four leave Coach Alford with a conundrum. He needs to choose who is the bigger threat, McLaughlin and his scoring or Jacobs and his leadership. Whichever he prioritizes will probably earn a game-long date with Aaron Holiday. However, that leaves one of those two along with Reinhardt to be guarded by Hamilton and Bryce Alford.

Reinhardt absolutely lit up Bryce in the first meeting, showing an ability to score off the dribble that he really didn’t show before or since. Much of that had to do with Bryce’s lack of defensive effort, but some of it had to do with the size difference of three inches and about 20 lbs. between the two.

Coach Alford may decide that the match-ups from the first game are the correct ones and that an increased defensive effort will show that. However, Alford may be smart to put Isaac Hamilton on Reinhardt and Bryce on Jacobs. Bryce tends to go under screens and is generally not quick enough to guard closely. With Jacobs looking to drive and not being a good outside shooter, he’d be unlikely to take advantage of Bryce’s tendency to dip under.

Hamilton has been more active this season, certainly more than Bryce, and his added length and general increase in effort could cause Reinhardt more problems than Bryce gave him. The thing about Reinhardt is that when he isn’t getting touches or he’s shooting poorly, his game takes on a whiff of pouty-ness.

McLaughlin scored 23 against the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion and it goes without saying that if Holiday is matched on him that he’ll have to prevent that.

The Bruins, of course, are much better defensively with Prince Ali on the floor in place of Bryce or Hamilton. If Bryce is out of the game, Ai has the potential to really hound Jacobs.

Freshman Chimezie Metu (6’11” 215 lbs.) had the game of his young career at Pauley Pavilion, going for 21 points and 8 boards while completely outworking the Bruin front line. It was clear that the player, who was very interested in UCLA during his recruitment only for the Bruin staff to show little interest, was fired up to show Coach Alford and company exactly what they missed on. Many on BRO have posted that he probably won’t go off like that again, but don’t be so sure. That kind of feeling of rejection and disrespect has a way of motivating a player for the entire time they are in college, at least when they play that team. Metu, who altered many Bruin interior shots, will very likely be fired up for this game. Whether that translates into the same type of score line remains to be seen.

A key in preventing that will be Jonah Bolden and Coach Alford’s willingness to continue starting the Australian frosh while bringing one of Tony Parker or Thomas Welsh off the bench. Bolden was horrible in the first meeting between these two schools, but he was also going through a bad stretch. He was very active against both Washington schools and if he continues that activity then he has the athleticism and length to keep Metu in check.

Junior Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 235 lbs.), a starter since he stepped on campus as a freshman, also had a bad game the first time these teams met. He was in foul trouble most of the night. If someone had said that he would only score 8 points and play 20 minutes, which is his line from the first meeting, I would have thought UCLA would have done well. That speaks volumes to Metu’s impact on the outcome of the first meeting. Parker and Welsh have proved in the past that they both can handle Jovanovic, to a certain extent, but he is capable of a double-double any time he plays.

Freshman power forward Bennie Boatwright (6’10” 220 lbs.) is almost entirely an outside-shooting big man, which could present some defensive matchup issues for UCLA’s bigs. He had virtually no impact in the first meeting, due to foul trouble, but he also has the capability of going off in spurts. The key is closing him out when he receives the ball and fighting over screens when he looks to use them away from the ball.

It’s pretty apparent that although Metu had a huge game the first time around, the game will be settled by the backcourt and the bench. The UCLA starters actually outscored USC’s starters but Metu, with assistance from Stewart, was so dominant off the bench that it gave the Trojans bench a 32-2 advantage over UCLA’s.

A key to preventing this is stopping USC from getting into the lane without help. USC was outstanding in the first match-up at driving and dishing to the open man, and USC hit 45% of its three-pointers in the first meeting.

When the Trojans did miss, they were able to track down offensive rebounds at key moments, like when the Bruins were trying to cut the lead to single-digits. Although the rebounding totals from that game were relatively even (42-39 for the Trojans) the reality was that USC had far more ‘key’ rebounds.

UCLA also did a poor job in transition defense, often allowing USC open outside shots with nary a Bruin in sight. This is something that can’t happen and it remains to be seen if the Bruins can do this. Washington State isn’t a team known for getting out in the open floor, so UCLA didn’t really have to deal with that factor on Saturday, and even during the comeback against Washington, UCLA’s inability to find open shooters at key moments of the second half led to the Bruins falling just short.

Still, as has been the case throughout the season, for this game to even be competitive then UCLA has to play hard and focused. However, even with an increased and sustained effort, USC’s best game is better than UCLA’s best game right now. For UCLA to win, the Bruins need to play a focused and sustained effort for 40 minutes, Alford has to divvy out the playing minutes properly, and USC probably has to be somewhat off in key parts of its game.

Quite frankly, winning this game would do more for UCLA’s profile than winning in Tucson next week. The Bruins have to play with a sense of urgency fans have yet to see from this team.

We’d caution, though, that even if the Bruins play with energy and focus, that may still not have enough to beat a Trojan squad that will probably be as up for this game as the Bruins will be.

USC 81

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