UCLA and USC renew their annual battle, with a new prize at stake beyond mere bragging rights: Sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 conference.
11th ranked UCLA (11-2, 4-0) takes on USC (12-2, 4-0) at the Fabulous Forum Thursday night at 7:30 PM (the game will either be broadcast on FSN or FSN2).
Both teams are hot. The Bruins have won 9 straight games, the Trojans have won 8 straight games. Both teams started their streaks after losses to Pepperdine. After that, the similarities end.
USC is the best defensive team in the conference and one of the best defensive teams in the country, period. Head Coach Henry Bibby and Assistant Coach Damon Archibald have designed a high-pressure defense in constant flux. Sometimes, the Trojans will go man to man in the halfcourt. Then they'll switch to a 1-2-2 matchup zone. Next, an opponent might see a 2-3 matchup zone, or a 2-3 straight up zone. Then the Trojans will suddenly start trapping and double-teaming in the halfcourt. All the while, they're in a fullcourt press. Or maybe they're using a 1-2-2 3/4s zone press. Or both. And then the switches start all over again. The Trojans lead the Pac-10 in FG% defense (38.7%) and they're second in turnover margin (4.6 per game). They force 17.4 turnovers per game and rarely turn the ball over themselves (12.8 per game). Against the Washington schools, USC caused 84 turnovers in 4 games and won by a margin of 18.5 points per game.
The Trojans also convert an awful lot of those turnovers into easy baskets. Their Woodenesque high post/high-low halfcourt offense is very efficient and balanced, relying on dribble penetration by the guards and the power game of Sam Clancy inside to break down opposing defenses. The Trojans like to penetrate with the ball, then kick it back out. Sam Clancy comes across the lane from the weakside, using a swipe screen on the baseline from the penetrator to set up on the low blocks 3 feet from the basket, ready for the entry pass with the defender pinned helplessly behind him. At least, that's their favorite play against a man defense. Denying that entry pass is the key. Unlike some past seasons, USC has a pretty solid 3-point attack. The Trojans are as quick as any team in the conference, and they have their deepest team ever. Despite a lack of a big name C, they are 4th in the conference in rebounding margin. If they have an Achilles' heel, it's at the FT line, where USC is dead last in the Pac-10 with a mark of 62.5%.
Any discussion of the Trojans' roster has to start with the aforementioned Mr. Clancy. He's a 6-7 240 SR PF who toys with the rest of the conference. No one big enough to outmuscle him is quick enough to stay with him. No one quick enough to stay with him can keep this powerful leaper from putting on a highlight act above the rim. Slamming Sam is averaging 16.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg. He also leads his team in steals at 2.4 per game and blocked shots at 1.3 per game. He can knock down the fall away 17-footer, put the ball on the floor or jam home the offensive rebound or lob pass. He's perhaps the most underrated defensive player in the Pac-10. In short, he's really good.
Brandon Granville, 5-9 SR PG, and Errick Craven, 6-2 FR SG, arguably give USC the best starting backcourt in the Pac-10, as well as the quickest. Brandon, out of Westchester High (well, for 1 year; before that, he was at St. Bernard's, in Playa Del Rey), is getting 12.4 ppg, 5.6 apg and 1.9 spg while hitting 39.7% of his 3s. He's got an A/TO ratio of 2.3/1, a superb mark for a college PG. Brandon and WSU's Marcus Moore are the 2 best PGs in the Pac-10. Granville drives the Trojan offense with his dribble penetration, but he can also get red hot from behind the arc. Ex-Bishop Montgomery star Errick is now dueling with Arizona's Channing Frye for Pac-10 FOY honors. Overall, he's averaging 12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 1.8 spg, while making 47.9% of his FGs, 76.9% of his FTs and 35.6% of his 3s. In the 4 games against the Washington schools, Errick averaged 16.0 ppg and 3.0 spg. A great athlete, Errick is especially nasty taking people to the rack along the baseline. He's also arguably the best individual defensive player in the Pac-10, even though he's only a FR.
David Bluthenthal, 6-7 220 SR SF/PF, just keeps turning in one steady performance after another while other players take the spotlight. David, also out of Westchester High (well, for 1 year; he was at Venice High for his first 3 years), is averaging 11.4 ppg and 7.0 rpg. He's hitting 83.3% of his FTs, so he's the guy that USC wants at the line at the end of a close game. He's also USC's most consistent 3-point shooter (37.5%); he made 7 3s against UCSB earlier this season. He's very tough on the boards, and he can post up and score inside with a variety of jump hooks and short turnaround Js. Desmon Farmer, 6-4 225 SO SG/SF (9.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is the Trojans' 6th man. He's an intense, athletic slasher who blows hot and cold from behind the arc. When he's at his best, the Trojans are at their best. Sometimes, though, Desmon plays out of control and with too much emotion.
Kostas Charissis, 6-11 250 JR C (1.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg) has gotten out of the corrupt NCAA jail and now starts in the middle for the Trojans. He's a good defensive player who sets solid screens and moves well between the high and low post within the USC halfcourt offense. Rory O'Neill, 6-11 220 FR C (4.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 54.7% from the field), out of Ridgecrest High in Burroughs, has a great shooting touch and soft hands. Sometimes, he gets outmuscled under the basket, but between Rory and Kostas, they have blocked double the amount of shots that Dan Gadzuric has this year in about the same number of minutes.
Robert Hutchinson, 6-1 195 JR (2.5 ppg, 1.6 apg), who was much abused by Trojan fans last year, has now emerged as the Pac-10's best backup PG. He is very steady with the ball, plays good defense and can hit the 3 if he's left open (35.7%). Jerry Dupree, 6-7 200 SO SF (4.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg) is a hyper-athletic forward out of Valley View High in Moreno Valley via the Juco ranks. He contributes to the Trojans' pressure d, can really get out on the break, and he's tough on the offensive glass. Nick Curtis, 6-8 220 FR PF (1.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg), out of Oxnard High School, has given USC some solid minutes underneath. So, the Trojans will go 10 deep, and they can keep their main guys fresh as they keep up the pressure.
Thus, USC. If you're a Bruin fan, you might want be wondering how you beat these guys. Hard to say. USC's 2 losses were to Fresno State on the road and to Pepperdine at the Forum, both early in the season, when teams weren't as well organized as they are now . USC forced less turnovers against those teams than against any other teams this season, and they also had their 2nd worst and 3rd worst 3-point shooting of the year in those games. Those losses, combined with USC's 5 closest games, were the Trojans' lowest scoring games of the season. So, a person looking at the statistics might argue that the key to beating USC is taking care of the ball, taking as much air out of the clock as possible on offense, and preventing them from getting good looks from outside the arc.
However, raw stats can be deceiving. Were the games low-scoring because the opponents took the air out of the clock, or because the opponents limited USC's ability to convert in transition off turnovers? Did USC shoot poorly from behind the arc in its losses because someone was pressuring their outside shooting, or because someone was keeping Brandon out of the paint, thus preventing him from driving and dishing and setting up his teammates for a lot of easy looks outside? My own assessment, from having watched a number of these games, is that the latter suggestion is correct in both cases.
UCLA doesn't start a real PG, and USC will no doubt press UCLA fullcourt, maybe from beginning to end. The young Washington schools crumbled under that pressure. The Bruins, however, are incredibly experienced in their starting lineup, and they have Ced Bozeman and Dijon Thompson coming off the bench. Indeed, Andre Patterson and TJ Cummings are quicker, and better able to handle pressure, than most backup post players in the country. USC's defense often tries to focus on the opponents' key ballhandler and playmaker and take the ball out of his hands. UCLA doesn't really have a key ballhandler and playmaker, though. So, who does USC focus on? Georgetown has been the only team that successfully pressed UCLA this year, and that was for one half. UCLA has been averaging 12.6 turnovers per game in 8 of its last 9 games, but the Hoyas did force 20 turnovers from the Bruins.
So, one obvious key to the game will be UCLA turnovers, and the ability of the USC Trojans to convert off those turnovers. If USC presses the Bruins, will UCLA choose to take advantage of the press for some easy buckets, or will they pull the ball back out to set up their offense? My guess is, UCLA will selectively run and gun with the Trojans, like they did against Georgetown. Unlike the Washington schools, the Bruins have mad bombers like Billy Knight and Jason Kapono who would be perfectly happy to launch 22-footers once they've broken the Trojan press and gained a man advantage. Dan Gadzuric, TJ Cummings and Matt Barnes will try to beat the USC big man down the floor in transition both ways, seeking easy dunks at one end before sprinting down to the defensive end of the floor to set up before USC races back with the ball. Why try to figure out the best halfcourt defense in the conference if you can get dunks and wide-open 3s against their press? USD tried that and played a good game against the Trojans. So did Pepperdine. But you have to finish the layups, and make those 3s early. UCLA hasn't shown the ability to do either for most of the season.
That leads to the second key to this game: Can UCLA's zone prevent Brandon and Errick (and Desmon) from penetrating off the dribble? This is probably more important for the Bruins than limiting Sam Clancy's touches. If Sam gets it early, it's probably best to leave him be, though you'd prefer him taking jumpers to dunking it. If Sam gets it late, the Bruins should judiciously foul the heck out of him. He's barely shooting better than 50% from the line. A good team can beat the Trojans even if Sam scores 30. The Trojans will hardly lose to anyone if Brandon and Errick are penetrating, and Brandon winds up with 10 assists because he's set up Errick, David and Desmon to go 7-16 from behind the arc.
UCLA has had trouble stopping penetration from less able guards than Brandon. The Bruins might move Matt to the first tier of interior defenders in the 1-2-2 matchup zone and put Jason down on the baseline. Matt covers more ground than most defensive players in the league. Indeed, along with Errick Craven, Matt might be about the best individual defender in the Pac-10. Lavin gave Matt the freedom to roam in the second half against WSU, and Marcus Moore, an excellent penetrator, had a lot of trouble getting into the paint off the dribble after that. So, I assume we will see something like that in this game. If the Bruin coaching staff is planning any surprises with the team's defense, they certainly won't talk about it in public (or privately with me). I do believe the Bruins need to do something different from what they've been doing recently on defense, as their opponents are getting too many penetrations, too many good looks from 3, and too many offensive rebounds. Gonzaga uses a 1-2-2 plus a 2-3 zone, and with Bluthenthal and Farmer and Craven so enamored of the baseline, one might think that a 2-3 matchup would be the best defense against USC, but UCLA has never used that defense this season.
The third key to the game should be USC's ability to get to the offensive glass for second looks, and UCLA's ability to keep them from doing just that. If you pull Matt away from the glass, does that mean more offensive rebounds for USC inside, or less? Matt will likely be in a better position to cut off Errick or Desmon from finding a seam in the zone to get to the glass if he's playing further from the basket. So, it might be pick your poison time for UCLA. In any event, UCLA cannot win this game if they don't minimize the Trojans' second chances. Indeed, if UCLA makes a lot of turnovers, doesn't get back on d, fails to hit their open 3s when they get a man advantage against the press, and allows the Trojans to jump all over the basket at their end of the floor, this game could be a blowout by halftime.
Jason Kapono has been in a mini-slump, and UCLA needs for him to snap out of it in a hurry. Dan Gadzuric needs to be active, forceful, aggressive and in the game, both literally and figuratively. Ced Bozeman's PT might zip up to 20 minutes. Most importantly, UCLA must play with poise and fire. They must turn the USC pressure against the Trojans by scoring from inside and out when they gain a man advantage. They must minimize their turnovers and mistakes. They must get back on defense and cut down on the ability of the Trojans to score quickly out of transition. They must stop Brandon and Errick from getting into the lane consistently off the dribble. And they must keep the Trojans off the offensive glass.
Can they do it? Yes. Will they do it? I have no idea. This will either be a Trojan blowout, or a very close and very high-scoring game.
Everyone knows I'm an optimist. But I would like to shave one of these days…
Hey. I predicted USC would beat UCLA at the Forum at the start of the year. And every season, it seems as if Lavin's teams reach a plateau, and need to be smacked around to move to a higher level.
I vote for the blowout…
Prediction: USC 94, UCLA 68.