Lonzo Ball (USA Today)

Preview: UCLA v. USC

Feb. 18 -- It's a big game for both teams, with UCLA playing for the Pac-12 Championship and a high NCAA seed -- and revenge -- and USC looking to strengthen its NCAA Tournament chances and keep its streak going...

The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night when the Bruins host the USC Trojans (7PM PST; Pac-12 Networks).

The game is critical to both teams as they near the end of the regular season.  These squads met at the Galen Center on January 25th with the Trojans winning fairly handily, 84-76.  It was arguably the nadir of UCLA’s season to date.  USC seemed to surprise UCLA and Head Coach Steve Alford in that game when the Trojans, trailing by 10 and seemingly unable to stop the Bruin interior offense, went to a zone defense.  The issues that showed in that game will certainly be question marks entering this one.  The obvious question is whether Alford and the Bruins have found answers to those issues.

Head Coach Andy Enfield’s Trojans know this game is important because of the implications a victory would have on USC’s NCAA Tournament chances.  Most prognosticators still don’t have the Trojans, who are 21-5 overall and 8-5 in the Pac-12, as locks to be chosen for the Big Dance.  Admittedly, most of these “bracketologists” struggle with accuracy, but the point being made is that USC could find itself on the outside looking in when bids are announced on March 12th if the Trojans go into a tailspin.  A second win against UCLA would almost certainly secure a bid regardless of what the Trojans do the rest of the way.

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However, there is certainly more to play for in this one for the Trojans.  First, the Trojans could better position themselves for a run at the Pac-12 Tournament in three weeks.  Although Oregon, Arizona and UCLA have separated themselves a bit from the rest of the conference, USC is certainly capable of going on a run to win the title.  Obviously being one of the top-four seeds in the tournament would give the Trojans a bye, and with California right there with USC, any win would help propel the Trojans to a fourth-place (or better) finish.  Then there’s the idea that USC is on a little run against the Bruins the past two seasons.  The Trojans have won four in a row against their crosstown rivals and would like nothing better than to extend that streak.  Winning one more time against the Bruins would also serve to give the Trojans a fighting chance of catching the Bruins for third-place entering the Pac-12 Tournament.

The Bruins, who went through a two-game swoon against Arizona and USC, have seemed to have gotten their collective early season mojo back, with one added component: the Bruins have spent the better part of the past four games playing some decent defense.  Since that loss to the Trojans, the Bruins have won four straight, have a record of 23-3 overall and 10-3 in the Pac-12, and are back in the conversation for a protected seed in the West region come Selection Sunday.  Certainly Bruin fans were disappointed when the first NCAA mock bracket of the top 16 seeds appeared last weekend, but there are six games left to play and if the Bruins can win even five of those, including the game against the Trojans, then the Bruins will be better positioned for that coveted seed.

There is no denying that this game is crucial for UCLA’s hopes to be in the West Region in March.

From a personnel standpoint, this game should be much different than the first meeting.  That’s because of the return of sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright (6’10”, 230 lbs.), who is one of the most talented players on the Trojan roster.  Boatwright had been out for 17 games with a knee injury and it showed last Saturday against Oregon when he went 3-15 from the floor.  He showed a lot of rust on both ends, but it really showed on the offensive end.  His lack of familiarity with his teammates, who had built a rapport with each other while Boatwright was out, was evident in the way the halfcourt offense looked off-kilter all game against the Ducks.  He certainly will get better but the Bruins may be catching the Trojans at a time when their offense is still going to go through a couple of hiccups.

Boatwright is unquestionably talented and athletic, and this may seem antithetical to the idea of adding this gifted player back to the Trojan roster, but his return may help the Bruins in other ways.  UCLA had a very difficult time guarding USC during the January game, and while some of that had to do with a lack of effort and intensity, some of that was because of the personnel match-ups.  The Trojans were often playing four guards and UCLA, specifically T.J. Leaf, had a heck of time trying to guard any of USC’s wing players.  Even when the Bruins went to a zone defense they struggled with USC’s quickness.  Again, some if not much of that had to do with UCLA’s lack of defensive effort, but even Coach Alford acknowledged that he felt he had to go to a four-guard lineup to counter the Trojans.  That meant that Alford was left to decide which one of Leaf or Thomas Welsh would be on the floor at any one time.  Alford also said he fell into the trap of playing four guards for too long during the game, but the fact remains that Leaf struggled to guard anyone outside of sophomore post Chimezie Metu (6’11”, 225 lbs.).

Bennie Boatwright (USA Today)

Now Enfield may be left in the same quandary.  He may want to go back to the four-guard line-up that hurt UCLA so badly in the first match-up, but he will have to decide whom between Metu and Boatwright to sit.  That’s because Leaf can absolutely guard Boatwright.  Further, with Boatwright probably still not 100%, he may have trouble guarding Leaf when USC plays man-to-man defense.  If Enfield decides to go back to the four-guard rotation then that would mean his sitting one of his better players.

Metu had a solid first outing against the Bruins, going for 13 points and 7 boards, but he clearly wasn’t the beast against the Bruins he was in the three games of the 2015-2016 season.  He leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 14.2 PPG and 7.4 RPG.  His athleticism is something the Bruins had trouble with last season, but he was somewhat muted in the first meeting this season.  Welsh certainly had his way with him for the first 8-10 minutes of the game at the Galen Center, and the flow of that game had the Trojan backcourt lighting up the Bruins, but Metu is still a threat.  He struggled on the boards against the Ducks last weekend and, interestingly, showed a bit of an immature side, slapping a Duck player at one point and then trying to apparently trip another at a different point in the game.  Perhaps the Bruins can get under his skin enough to entice him to make another poor decision.

The reality is that USC’s victory in the first game was the result of the play of its guards.  Juniors Jordan McLaughlin (6’1”, 180 lbs.) and Elijah Stewart (6’5”, 190 lbs.), along with freshmen De'Anthony Melton (6’4”, 190) and Jonah Mathews (6’3”, 185 lbs.), started that game and were spelled by sophomore Shaqquan Aaron (6’7”, 190 lbs.).  They combined for 64 of USC’s 84 points and completely outplayed their UCLA counterparts.  Part of that was their going 14-34 from behind the arc, but it was their quickness and their activity, especially when Enfield went to a zone defense midway through the first half, that truly made an impact on the game.  Aaron in particular had a huge game, going off for 23 points.

Boatwright has replaced Mathews in the starting line-up, and along with freshman forward Nick Rakocevic (6’11”, 215 lbs.) and Aaron, the Trojans now have a legitimate eight-player rotation.

UCLA’s inability to match up with USC’s four-guard lineup was one reason the first meeting went pear-shaped for the Bruins.  The other was USC’s defense moving to the aforementioned zone.  The Trojans were active in that game and it really bothered the Bruins.  Still, UCLA faced a better and more active zone defense when the Bruins went up against Oregon last week and UCLA was able to torch the Ducks.

The issue wasn’t as much USC’s activity as it was UCLA’s poor execution of a basic 1-3-1 zone offense.  Specifically, UCLA’s bigs had a difficult time holding onto the ball when they received a pass at the free throw line.  USC was able to knock the ball away numerous times. It was clear that the UCLA guards noticed this as well because the Bruins basically stopped trying to get the ball to the middle and began to settle for three-point jumpers.  There is every reason to believe that USC will revert to the zone defense for at least part of the game.  The key will be UCLA’s ability to get the ball to the middle and, to a lesser extent, to the short corner where all of UCLA’s forwards, even Ike Anigbogu have shown the ability to hit the jumper from that spot.   If UCLA’s ball movement is accompanied by a real determination to be strong with the ball in the paint, then UCLA could force USC to come out of a zone defense rather quickly.

Another strategic issue was UCLA’s turnovers.  The Bruins had 14 turnovers by halftime and those contributed mightily to the double-digit deficit the Bruins faced.  Honestly, UCLA’s halfcourt defense wasn’t as bad as some opined during the game, but looked far worse because of the easy buckets USC got off the Bruin turnovers.  At one point USC had scored 21 points off UCLA turnovers…in the first half.  UCLA only committed three turnovers in the second half but by then the damage had been done.

Finally, along with Leaf, who finished with only 8 points, UCLA’s Bryce Alford had his worst game of the season.  He finished with 3 points on 1-7 shooting and he played 37 minutes.  To be honest, if Alford and Leaf come close to their respective scoring averages in that first game then UCLA probably would have won despite the turnovers and poor offensive execution.  Alford, like all of the Bruin guards, resorted a bit to the ‘hero-ball’ that fans saw last season.  However, his athletic deficit against the Trojan guards made it even more apparent.  Ironically, if UCLA runs its offense, whether against a zone or man defense, Alford is able to use screens off the ball to get open for shots.  Even against a zone, when Alford plays within himself, his movement along the arc allows passers, especially from the interior, to find him open on a kick-out for his shot.  But the UCLA offense basically flamed out for much of the game.

Really, if USC plays exactly the same way in this game as it did the January game, or even better, which is hard to imagine considering the hot shooting shown by the Trojans in the first half, the Bruins will still win if they simply cut down on the turnovers and are stronger with the ball.

Then there’s UCLA’s defense.  If the Bruins play this game with same defensive intensity they showed for most of the last four games, let alone the last 12 minutes of the Oregon game, where the Bruins played with the intensity of a team that wants to hang another banner, then that should be enough to cause the outcome of this game to end in UCLA’s favor.

The atmosphere should approach the intensity of the Oregon game.  The UCLA athletic department has planned a “blue out” and the game has been sold-out for a few days.  Expect USC to continue to play with a chip on its shoulder as it has in the past four meetings with the Bruins.

However, expect the Bruins to play with a bit of chip themselves.  The Bruins clearly have something to prove and are probably sick of hearing about USC’s current four-game winning streak.

The personnel match-ups should actually be more favorable for the Bruins in this game, assuming Boatwright plays a lot of minutes.  The USC offense shouldn’t look anywhere near as efficient as it did in the first meeting, both because of UCLA’s not turning the ball over so much and because USC is still getting used to having Boatwright back in the lineup.

The Bruin offense has looked more like the early season version since the USC loss and, quite frankly, it is highly unlikely that both Leaf and Alford are going to have as offensively poor games as they did at the Galen Center.

The bottom line is that USC will need a lot to go right for it to be able to beat the Bruins this time around.

A loss to the Bruins certainly won’t be any sort of dagger to USC’s season.  Barring a collapse, which shouldn’t happen because the Washington schools still have to visit Los Angeles, the Trojans will be in the Big Dance.

For the Bruins, though, and with all due respect to Arizona State, a win sets the stage for a titanic clash in the desert one week from Saturday with the Wildcats.  Chances are that UCLA won’t be able to win the conference regular season title, but a win on this Saturday and the next would send a message to the entire Pac-12 and the rest of the nation that UCLA is a serious national title contender.

UCLA               91
USC                 80

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