After suffering their worst loss of the season last Saturday on national television, the UCLA Bruins travel across town to the Galen Center to take on the USC Trojans on Wednesday night (8 PM PST; Fox Sports 1).
This game now has enormous implications on several levels for the Bruins, coming off the brutal loss to the Wildcats. It is also an very important game for the Trojans, who have started poorly in conference play. It is a rivalry game, and the Trojans took all three games from the Bruins last year in resounding fashion. Will the Bruins be motivated by Saturday’s loss? Will the Bruins have a chip on their shoulders because of the manner in which USC embarrassed them last season? Will USC be able to put together a superb effort? Will the Bruins at least try to play defense? Many questions will be answered on Wednesday, but the most important one is this: how will UCLA respond to Saturday’s defeat?
The Bruins were 19-1 going into Saturday’s game with Arizona, and the one loss, to Oregon on the road on a last-second shot, was completely understandable. The Bruins were competitive and the Ducks were probably lucky to win that game.
Arizona simply ran UCLA off the court. In Pauley Pavilion, no less.
Anyone following college basketball this season knew that the Bruins struggled on defense. The reasons aren’t important because they’ve been discussed at length. The real eye-opener from Saturday was UCLA’s (relatively speaking) poor offense compared to the previous games the Bruins have played. From that standpoint, Sean Miller showed a game plan that many teams will now try to emulate, and it could cause UCLA’s season to end earlier than you’d think given the talent on the roster.
Miller’s plan had several parts. The Wildcats came in with a mindset to crash the offensive boards to take advantage of UCLA’s weakness on the defensive glass, spread the floor on offense in order to isolate Bruin defenders, and, most importantly, play straight-up man defense with no one helping off of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. That last piece is critical and could give teams insight on how to slow down the UCLA offense.
Assume for the moment that UCLA’s defense is going to continue to struggle as it has for much of the season. That would mean that the only way UCLA avoids what happened on Saturday is for the Bruins to be ‘better’ on offense. That is a bit of a misnomer in that, even though the Saturday game was UCLA’s worst offensive performance of the year, the reality is that the Bruins put up 85 points against arguably the best defensive team they’ll face this year. If the Bruins had slowed down a bit in order to get better shots then they easily could’ve put up another 10-15 points. It wouldn’t have masked the defensive issues, but it would have certainly put the Bruins more in the game.
Andy Enfield is almost certain to try to incorporate the same defensive concepts into his game plan for Wednesday, namely sitting on Bryce and Hamilton and giving little help. However, that’s easier said than done. USC has the athletes to guard UCLA in a manner in which Arizona did, but the Trojans may not have the depth and certainly don’t have the size that Arizona has on defense.
Because of the injury to sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright (6’10”, 230 lbs.), Enfield has chosen to go with a small, athletic line-up featuring only one true post player, sophomore Chimezie Metu (6’11”, 225 lbs.). Last season’s games against the Trojans saw Metu basically obliterate the UCLA post game. Keep in mind that Metu wanted to go to UCLA and the Bruins didn’t offer him a scholarship. The chances are that Metu is going to have a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the Bruins for as long as he is in South Central.
Metu averages 13.6 PPG and a team-leading 7.5 RPG. He leads the team in blocked shots with 35, which is better than 1.5 BPG and, with respect to Oregon’s Christopher Boucher, Metu is the most athletic post UCLA will see in the Pac-12. Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo is probably as athletic and the Bruins took care of him in December, but the guess is that Metu is going to be far more motivated than Adebayo was.
If Enfield sticks with the small line-up, then both Enfield and Steve Alford will have an interesting game of cat-and-mouse during the game. If the Bruins go with their traditional line-up of two posts and three guards, then USC will probably struggle to guard at least one of the post players. If Enfield chooses to have Metu guard Thomas Welsh, then T.J. Leaf could have a field day. If Enfield stays ‘small,’ we wouldn’t be surprised if Metu matches up with Leaf, inviting a struggling Welsh to be the focal point of the offense. The only problem with that would be that guarding Leaf would take Metu away from the basket and open the glass to UCLA’s offensive put-backs.
However, UCLA would really struggle on the other side of the floor because either Welsh or Leaf would struggle to guard anyone not named Metu. That would give USC matchup advantages that would allow them to spread the floor and attack UCLA in much the same manner as Arizona.
It appears that the four guards that will start are juniors Jordan McLaughlin (6’1”, 180 lbs.) and Elijah Stewart (6’5”, 190 lbs.), and freshmen De'Anthony Melton (6’4”, 190 lbs.) and Jonah Mathews (6’3”, 185 lbs.).
McLaughlin is a very athletic point guard who is arguably the best point guard in the conference after UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. He is co-leader on the team in scoring at 14.1 PPG, but he’s doing it by shooting 48% from the field and 41% from the three-point line. If anything, McLaughlin isn’t shooting enough, especially recently.
That’s because the other scoring co-leader is Stewart and his shooting has been horrific for about three weeks before the win over Arizona State on Sunday. What’s essentially happening is McLaughlin is looking to set Stewart up for shots. McLaughlin probably needs to start hunting for his own, and this could be the game to do it considering the state of UCLA’s defense and inability to defend dribble penetration.
Melton starts off the ball but becomes the point during the few minutes McLaughlin is given a breather. He is a nice but not great athlete who can get to the rim. He is struggling with his outside shot, though, hitting under 33% from behind the arc.
Matthews was inserted into the starting line-up in place of sophomore Shaqquan Aaron (6’7”, 190 lbs.) just last Sunday against ASU. Matthews is more of a ‘glue guy’ who gives great effort on both ends of the floor. He isn’t a great offensive player, shooting roughly the same as Melton from distance but being far worse inside the arc than his teammate.
Here’s the thing with all four guards, though: they are ball hawks. This team is averaging almost 7 steals per game, which is a huge number. They have four players who have over 20 steals, led by Melton with 36. Melton and Stewart are also solid rebounders, at 5.6 and 5.1 RPG respectively. The team is causing 13 turnovers per game in total, a huge rate. The Trojans play a ball-denial man defense that is about as in-your-face as Oregon’s, but with a bit more quickness across the board. Oregon has more size, but USC has the jitterbugs.
It isn’t surprising that USC is forcing the opposition to shoot only 42% from the floor on the year; however, the Trojans are susceptible to the three-pointer, giving up a 37% clip to opponents from behind the arc.
Aaron and freshman post Nick Rakocevic (6’11”, 215 lbs.) provide the bench help, and that’s about it. Aaron was removed from the starting line-up in the hope that he’ll rediscover his shot. He has the ability to light things up but has been poor on his jumpers the past few games. The rest of his game has offered little reason to keep him on the floor. He is the worst defender among the wings, rebounds poorly for the second-tallest player that was seeing at least 20 MPG, and he doesn’t like to drive.
Rakocevic is a hard worker who clearly doesn’t have the physicality yet to deal with high major post players. He has some nice moves underneath and he can rebound fairly well, but UCLA would be in great shape if Metu gets into early foul trouble.
If Coach Alford decides that he needs to stick with two true posts for the offensive matchups, then UCLA needs to play zone. The length of the Bruins in a zone would cause USC real problems. The Bruins actually don’t match-up too badly if Alford decided to go ‘small’, although Metu could then easily defend the one Bruin post on the floor. If Alford goes ‘big’ and decides to play man-to-man defense, then this could turn into a track meet. Ball and Hamilton would have to take Stewart and McLaughlin in some form. That leaves Bryce to guard Matthews or Melton with Leaf taking the other, and that would put the Bruins in a rough predicament. T.J. is a solid athlete for his size, but he is nowhere near quick enough to deal with either Trojan guard.
The Bruins really need to be in a zone for this one, at least for a significant chunk. If Alford decides to do that then UCLA probably wins fairly handily.
Last year, USC had the best four or five players on the floor all three games. That shouldn’t be the case this time. USC simply doesn’t have the size to cause UCLA the same issues that Arizona did. Certainly, if UCLA is sloppy with the ball then this will be tight, but if the Bruins play focused offense, Enfield will have to make some significant adjustments. He may have to sag into the paint on his man defense or even go to a zone.
There are many questions to answer for UCLA after Saturday. Don’t lose sight of the fact that USC has some questions as well and could very much come out with the whirlwind the Trojans did in the first game last season. Enfield is certain to fire his charges up with talk of UCLA lacking respect for USC, and so on. Still, UCLA should be quite angry as well, and the Bruins need to channel that anger into a better performance with better and, just as importantly, smarter effort.
This goes for the coach as well. Alford has been solid coaching during games this season, but he had a hiccup on Saturday. Enfield isn’t known as a great game tactician, but he had Alford’s number last season. Alford has to be sure he is at least Enfield’s coaching equal.
There’s no telling how UCLA will respond or how fired up USC will be. Just based on the statistics, viewing each team all season and the rosters, etc., UCLA should be the favorite.