If you're USC or UCLA, you'd really prefer to avoid getting the #7 seed, which will almost undoubtedly make you face Arizona in the first round of the tournament. If you get the #6 seed, you very likely face Washington in the first round. Gee, Arizona or Washington...?
It's also a significant game since USC has beaten UCLA three in a row. UCLA's last victory over USC was in 2002. (An aside: It's amazing that UCLA won the Lexus Gauntlet competition last year when it's received no support from its football and basketball programs in the last two years.)
USC beat UCLA a month ago, 76-69, in a strange game of two completely different halves. UCLA was in the middle of its bad slide in its schedule, and in the first twenty minutes of the game played its worst half of the season, according to Head Coach Ben Howland. USC, with its superior quickness and athleticism on the perimeter, was going right around UCLA's slack on-ball defense and creating easy opportunities. UCLA was down twenty points at halftime, 44-24.
In the second half, UCLA did something it generally doesn't do very well – or often: It used a zone. To keep USC's guards from penetrating and creating. And it worked. It frustrated USC offensively, forced them into a number of turnovers, which turned into easy transition baskets for UCLA. The Bruins rallied and came within three points with two minutes left.
While UCLA doesn't have great experience in a zone and Howland prefers a man defense, you can bet that Howland will go to it quickly if UCLA's defenders can't stay in front of the ball. USC, though, has seen some zones this year and will probably be well-prepared.
Of course, their zone buster is senior wing Desmon Farmer, who is averaging 19 points a game. Errick Craven is the other leader in the backcourt, along with his twin brother, Derrick, and the other set of equally athletic twins, Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart. They're good for about six threes a game between all of them. Farmer can go off on a hot streak, but so can Craven, and Lodrick Stewart just made five threes Saturday against Cal.
And if that's not enough zone-busting for you, their center, 6-11 Rory O'Neil is actually better shooting the ball from behind the arc than he is in the block.
Perhaps their most unsung and effective player for USC this year has been low-block scorer, 6-7 junior Jeff McMillan, who is averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds a game.
But USC's biggest asset is their athleticism, particularly their quickness. Defensively they'll harrass you with full-court pressure and half-court traps. On offense, they're able to take you off a dribble with their quickness. UCLA has struggled all year against athletic teams and USC, with the waves of athletes they can throw at you on the perimeter, is a bad matchup for the slower Bruins.
UCLA, though, has continued to improve its offensive execution, even while it's been losing. They're getting fairly good looks at the basket but just don't have enough scorers to put the ball actually in it. UCLA is heavily reliant on T.J. Cummings and Dijon Thompson for its scoring, and if either are cold, the Bruins have little chance of winning. Center Ryan Hollins had his best game of the season in the first game against USC, perhaps because his size and athleticism presents a tough matchup for the smaller, bulkier McMillan and the soft O'Neil.
For UCLA it will be all about playing defense. Against USC, if you can keep them from going on their tears and getting themselves and their 850 fans excited, you have a good chance of beating them. They'll sooner or later go into a funk, lose concentration and intensity, turn the ball over and play lackluster defense.
But bottom line, USC, with its quick athletes is just a bad matchup for UCLA. UCLA can only zone for so long, and USC won't be befuddled by it this time.