T.J. Leaf (USA Today)

Pac-12 Tourney Preview: UCLA v. USC

Mar. 9 -- The crosstown rivals face off for the rubber game of the season, with UCLA on a roll and USC struggling somewhat in its game Wednesday against Washington. The big question: How healthy is T.J. Leaf and will it affect his game?

The UCLA men’s basketball team begins its quest for the Pac-12 Tournament championship when the third-seeded Bruins take on the sixth-seeded USC Trojans in the final quarterfinal game of the tournament on Thursday night in Las Vegas (8:30 PM PST; ESPN). 

This will be the third meeting of the year between these crosstown rivals, with USC winning at the Galen Center in the first meeting and the Bruins crushing the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion just a few weeks ago. 

This game is vitally important for both teams.  For UCLA, the game represents the first of three that the Bruins must win in order to virtually ensure that they remain as a top-two seed in the West Region for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.  For the Trojans, the game represents an opportunity for them to lock-up an NCAA bid, while a loss will leave the Trojans sweating until Selection Sunday. 

The Bruins have been playing very good basketball overall since the loss to USC earlier this season.  USC has not.  The question for this game is really about the Bruins, and whether the focus and intensity they’ve shown at both ends of the floor the past few weeks will continue in Sin City.

Head Coach Andy Enfield’s Trojans looked a bit disheveled in their first round Pac-12 Tournament win over Washington on Wednesday night.  They trailed at the half, and once the Trojans were able to take the lead, they allowed the Huskies to hang around.  College basketball is all about match-ups and one can argue that UCLA is a much worse match-up for the Huskies than USC is, but the reality is that the Bruins simply crushed the Huskies twice earlier this season, and if USC plays against the Bruins as they did against the Huskies on Wednesday, then this game will resemble the Bruins’ cakewalk at Pauley.

The Trojans certainly have the athleticism to hurt the Bruins at virtually every position.  In the post, the Trojans have sophomore Chimezie Metu (6’11”, 225 lbs.), who gave the Bruins fits in all three Trojan wins last season.  Fellow sophomore Bennie Boatwright (6’10”, 230 lbs.) is a long face-up four who is arguably USC’s best offensive player.  The guard positions are manned by juniors Elijah Stewart (6’5”, 190 lbs.) and point guard Jordan McLaughlin (6’1”, 180 lbs.), both of whom are more than capable of scoring in bunches and defending UCLA’s perimeter players, while freshmen De'Anthony Melton (6’4”, 190 lbs.) has been a solid contributor all season who helps make Stewart and McLaughlin better.

Chimezie Metu (Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com)

Enfield can bring several solid players off the bench, including sophomore Shaqquan Aaron (6’7”, 190 lbs.), who really killed the Bruins from behind the arc in the first game at Galen, and freshman post Nick Rakocevic (6’11”, 215 lbs.), along with another freshman, guard Jonah Mathews (6’3”, 185 lbs.).  Mathews started while Boatwright was out earlier this season with a knee injury.

The reality is that the personnel match-ups are not going to be as critical in this games compared to the energy the players have and the tactics employed by Enfield and Bruin Head Coach Steve Alford.

For all of the criticism Alford has endured over his first three seasons in Westwood, and much of it deserved and self-inflicted, he is the architect of this year’s 28-3 regular season record for the Bruins.  To suggest otherwise would not be dealing in reality.  To be clear, Lonzo Ball may be the most impactful freshman basketball player in the past decade to grace the college ranks in the regular season (let’s see what happens from here on out before drawing any postseason conclusions) and may be the single greatest reason for the Bruin resurgence, but Alford deserves credit for recruiting him, and for staying on T.J. Leaf even after Leaf’s initial commitment to Arizona.  Further, while Alford still shows some signs of weakness as a sideline coach, namely his substitution patterns and some tactical decision-making that is a bit late in certain games, he has absolutely nailed some things this season.  For instance, he is the coach who installed the offense that is arguably one of the best fans have seen in college basketball in the era of the three-point line.  He also is the coach who recognized the strengths and weaknesses of his players and installed the 1-2-2 ball-hawking zone defense that has helped to kick-start the Bruins’ current winning streak.

The Bruins had an elite regular season and Alford deserves a great deal of credit for that.

When the Trojans and Bruins first faced off at the Galen Center, Enfield went early to a zone defense of his own and it really rattled the Bruins.  UCLA started taking quick, contested shots, had poor ball movement and struggled to get the ball to the middle or the short corner on the baseline.  The quick and selfish shooting had much to do with UCLA’s forwards having poor games holding onto the ball in the middle of the zone, giving up numerous turnovers as the Trojan guards poked and deflected the ball away once the ball got to the free throw line. It really was a question of strength and desire, and the Bruin post players were not strong with the ball nor did they exhibit the same desire to win that the Trojans did that night.

What further complicated things that game was the turnover situation.  UCLA had 14 first-half turnovers in that game, which led to 21 USC points and effectively put the Trojans out of reach by halftime when USC had already built a double-digit lead.

In the game at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruin posts were much stronger with the ball, the offensive ball movement was outstanding and the turnovers were almost non-existent compared to the first game.  As a result, the Bruins completely blew the Trojans off of Nell and John Wooden Court.  The Bruin defense was also much better in that game, with the 1-2-2 that featured Ball at the top of that zone particularly giving the Trojans real headaches when they had the ball.

The expectation is that both USC and UCLA will use zone defenses liberally throughout the game.  Enfield and USC need to come up with a new plan against the Bruin 1-2-2 because what the Trojans ran against it at Pauley didn’t work.  For the Bruins, they need to focus on making sure they move the ball well against the Trojan 2-3 zone, with quick ball reversal being able to open up that interior pass to the middle of the floor or even looking to the short corner where Thomas Welsh could have a field day.

If the Bruins can rebound fairly well, especially on the defensive glass, keeping Metu in particular from picking up second-chance points, and if they can avoid committing turnovers in bunches, then UCLA should be fine. USC is a much better team in transition than in the halfcourt and limiting easy transition baskets will certainly cut into its offensive efficiency.

The one caveat, of course, is the health of Leaf.  He is expected to start tonight’s game despite suffering the ankle sprain last week against Washington.   His effectiveness remains to be seen and if he is significantly limited either in his movement or his vertical quickness, then USC chances at a victory increase.  How much they increase also remains to be seen, though, because Leaf hasn’t had monster offensive games against the Trojans. His presumed replacement, Gyorgy Goloman, is a better interior defender than Leaf and should be able to hold his own against the Trojans on that end of the floor. Leaf is a better rebounder and offensive player, but UCLA does have enough offensive weapons in Ball, Welsh, Aaron Holiday and Bryce Alford to be able to pick up the slack of an ineffective leaf on offense.  If Isaac Hamilton could get going then that would certainly help.

The stress placed on ball movement cannot be overstated for the Bruin offense, and that requires patience.  When Arizona came into Pauley Pavilion and beat the Bruins earlier this season, the Wildcats gave the nation a blueprint on how to slow down the Bruin offense, namely to really close out hard on UCLA’s perimeter shooters, especially Hamilton and Alford, both of whom struggle with athleticism, and force Ball to become much more of a scorer than a distributor.  USC was successful with that approach in the first meeting, but failed miserably at that in the second game.  The Bruin guards, especially Alford, really let the game come to them in the halfcourt offense against the Trojans at Pauley, using screens and being patient enough to understand that good shots were going to open up if they gave the possession enough time.

Really, USC’s best hope for a victory in this game is that UCLA doesn’t play a mature offensive game.  However, the Bruins have shown that even if they aren’t efficient on offense that they are still going to score. Keep in mind that in all three of UCLA’s losses this season, the Bruins cleared the 80-point mark.  Further, UCLA has now shown a clear pattern over the past five weeks that its defense can get stops when necessary so that the any offensive hiccups have been of decidedly low impact.

Both teams need this game, but UCLA is clearly the elite team in this one.  Chances are that the crowd will not be a huge factor, although there is every reason to believe that the Arizona fans will stick around to watch who will be Cats’ opponents on Friday (assuming Arizona gets through Colorado in the first game of the evening session).  If they do, it will be interesting to see who the Wildcat fans pull for, with some clearly wanting another shot at the Bruins while others are clearly worried about having to face UCLA a third time.

If UCLA is the team it appears to be, one that is clearly elite this season, and it is a team with a desire to do whatever it takes to put itself in the best position possible to win a twelfth national title, then this is a game UCLA should absolutely win.

It really comes down to the focus and energy that UCLA brings.  If UCLA stays focused and plays with the same desire on both ends of the floor that its showed the last few weeks, then this game will be much more like the game at Pauley Pavilion than the one at the Galen Center.  There is no reason to believe that the Bruins will suddenly play without that consistent effort and focus.

The final score will be tempered by Coach Alford’s desire to get some rest, especially for Leaf if possible, but UCLA should win nonetheless, setting up what could be the second game of the UCLA rubber match tour on Friday against Arizona.

UCLA       86
USC         77

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