We know we've said that a game is huge before, but this one truly is in determining whether UCLA will have a chance at an NCAA tournament bid this season.
The Bruins, at 9-6, will probably need 18 wins to get a NCAA bid. If they lose tonight against USC it would make them 9-7. If you go through the second half of the conference schedule, it is quite a bit more challenging than the first half. You'd have to project losses against Stanford, at Arizona, at Arizona State, at Oregon and (especially if they lose tonight against USC at Pauley) at USC. Even among the wins you'd give them, some are still questionable – California at home, Oregon State on the road, Washington at home and Washington State at home.
Let's say they do that, lose to USC tonight and then live up exactly to present expectation for the rest of the season. And, in addition, they beat their two remaining non-conference opponents – St. John's on the road and Notre Dame at home. That would give them a record of 15-12, and 9-9 in conference. They'd have to win the Pac-10 tournament to get an NCAA bid.
Even if they beat USC tonight, they'd be 16-11 and 10-8, and would probably need to go to the Pac-10 tourney final to get a bid, which would mean beating either Stanford or Arizona in the conference tournament along the way.
And that's just with a win over USC tonight. Really, for UCLA to have a legitimate shot at the NCAA, they'll have to beat USC tonight, then hold expectation against Cal, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State, and then probably get a win among Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and USC (the rematch). That would make them 17-10, 11-7 after the regular season, and would probably mean they'd need only one win in the Pac-10 tournament.
So, really, not only is beating USC critical to UCLA's NCAA chances, it desperately needs it and probably one more unexpected win to be considered for an NCAA bid.
It's good timing, then, that the game marks the return of shooting guard Brian Morrison, who's been out for 9 ½ games with a strained hamstring. Perhaps we've romanticized Morrison's abilities a bit in his absense (it does make the heart grow fonder), and we can't expect too much from him in his initial game back, but he'll hopefully bring some of the critical elements that UCLA has been lacking recently. Like outside shooting, perimeter defense and the ability to create a shot. Before he was hurt, he was probably the best on the team in each of those categories.
When it comes to analyzing USC, it is truly a tale of two teams. There is the team that beat Final-Four contender Arizona, then there is the team that lost by 15 to Washington State. They almost pulled off an upset against #2-ranked Stanford, a week before they were blown out by ASU.
You really can't put your finger on when the good USC team will make an appearance. You could say it's for big games when they're motivated, but they haven't been that consistent. It really seems like it's far more unpredictable than that, seemingly just a random occurrence when the stars are aligned, and their superior athletes decide to play hard.
If you're looking for motivation, though, for USC, this game provides it. They're teetering even more on the edge of losing a potential NCAA bid. They're also coming off three straight losses. The Cravens wanted to come to UCLA. And it's UCLA-USC.
USC has been so inconsistent because they're just a mess of a bunch of athletes who don't necessarily know how to play basketball really well, thrown together. They can get it going at times for stretches, and at other times well, they're a mess.
USC's leader this year is senior wing Desmon Farmer, who is putting up all-Pac-10 conference numbers, averaging a third-best-in-the-conference 19.5 points a game. He's also their Ironman, averaging a team-leading 34 minutes a game. Against Stanford Saturday he never came out. He is probably the streakiest shooter in the Pac-10, able to get hot to the point where he could throw up a ball blind-folded and it'd go in. His cold streaks are getting fewer and farther between. He's also fairly good at creating some space for himsel to get off a good mid-range and very good at aggressively taking the ball to the basket, even though he can get a bit out of control at times. As Farmer goes, so goes the Trojans. If UCLA can shut him down, or just limit him to under his season average, they'd have a very good chance of beating USC.
6-7 junior power forward Jeff McMillan hasn't gotten a great deal of notoriety so far this season, but he's been producing for the Trojans, getting 12 points a game and 8.5 rebounds, which is fourth-best in the conference. He's all of 260 pounds, and pushes around opponents while having some good low-block explosiveness. If you remember, UCLA's former coaching staff was interested for a time in McMillan when he was in high school.
Then the Trojans throw two sets of athletic, manic twins at you in the forms of juniors Errick and Derrick Craven, and freshmen Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart. Each of them have seemingly been in the doghouse of volatile head coach Henry Bibby at some time this season. The most productive among them, 6-2 junior shooting guard Errick Craven, didn't start the season. Bibby has a gag order on the Stewarts from talking to the press. Both sets of twins are a bit of a handful, particularly the Stewarts, who can be a disruptive influence. Errick, though, eventually won his starting position back, but then lost it last week when he didn't start against Stanford, a punishment by Bibby for kicking a Cal player in the previous game. Craven, who is expected to start against the Bruins, is a stud athlete who has a motor that never stops. His jumpshot has drastically improved but he still tends to play a bit out of control.
6-3 freshman guard Rodrick Stewart has been starting at the point guard position, and playing sporadically. Probably one of the biggest contributing factors to USC's inconsistent play is the inconsistency from the point guard position, from Rodrick and from backup Derrick Craven. They're not natural point guards, don't have a great feel, and tend to turn the ball over.
The other Stewart twin, Lodrick, has been getting 22 minutes per game off the bench. He, like the three other twins, is also inconsistent and unpredictable. He, like the other twins, is extremely athletic, and if he's having a good shooting game, can knock down threes.
7-0 senior center Jonathan Oliver has been starting at center, replacing Rory O'Neil, the 6-11 junior who started at the beginning of the season. O'Neil has struggled this season, his inability to body up down low continuing to hurt him, but has continued to get most of the center minutes. O'Neil is the most dangerous offensively, being able to step out and hit a jumper beyond the three-point line. The tight end from the football team, 6-9, 245-pound Greg Guenther, has gotten 17 minutes a game doing the blue-collar stuff for the Trojans that neither O'Neil or Oliver can provide.
Those ten comprise Bibby's rotation, and it seems like a constant wave of bodies – and twins – that keep rotating into the game for USC.
The Trojans, when they play inspired, can be one of the best defensive teams in the conference. With the great athleticism of the two sets of twins, they attack the basketball, and Bibby will press and trap in many different forms. If they're playing with fire, they should have a great chance of disrupting UCLA's ability to handle the ball and pass. Knowing how well a zone has worked against UCLA, Bibby will probably, reluctantly, use a zone, but if his "A" team comes to Pauley, he'll probably like the advantages that man-to-man offers him. When they don't play with aggressiveness on defense, they get very lazy and allow opponents to get open looks for easy baskets.
Offensively, they run, they shoot too quickly, take ill-advised shots, can get really hot, score in spurts, and they turn the ball over a lot. But then again, with their frenzied approach, they force opponents to play the same way, which creates some easy baskets for the Trojans.
UCLA's defense, which was so stellar in UCLA's first 12 games, didn't make much of an appearance in its last three. USC's athleticism might delay its return. On the other hand, the return of Brian Morrison could provide UCLA a spark defensively. UCLA, generally, as we saw against Arizona, doesn't match up well against athletic teams, and USC could be the second-most athletic team in the conference behind Arizona. The difference could be in UCLA's defenders being able to stay with USC's perimeter players, which they couldn't do against Arizona.
The Bruins need to shut down USC early, and get its shooters like Morrison and Dijon Thompson on track to keep USC from going on big runs. You can probably expect it to be a pretty frenetic game, with UCLA trying to keep the tempo under control, and USC cranking it up. The last 10 minutes should be particularly wild if it's close, with USC probably employing some full-pressure presses and traps, as UCLA's other opponents have done, and with the athletes to really be effective doing it. The return of Morrison, and UCLA playing on its home court, should give UCLA enough of a boost to keep USC under enough control.