USC took sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 by dominating the offensive glass as they beat 11th ranked UCLA, 81-77. USC is now 13-2 overall, 5-0 in the Pac-10. The Bruins fall to 11-3, 4-1.
In my game preview, I said there were 3 keys to UCLA winning this game.
The first key was for UCLA to minimize both its turnovers and USC's ability to convert easy baskets off turnovers. The Bruins did a good job of that. Although some of their turnovers were unforced and some came at key moments, UCLA's 14 turnovers tied Fresno State for the fewest turnovers made by any team against USC's terrific swarming defense this season, and the Trojans only scored 10 points off converted turnovers. Of course, in a 4-point game, even a couple of turnovers can make the difference…
The second key was for UCLA to limit the ability of the Trojans to penetrate. The Bruins did an excellent job of that in the first half when they stuck to their matchup zone, but allowed too much penetration in the second half when they switched to a man d for long stretches. However, overall, UCLA did a fairly solid job in this department.
The third key was for UCLA to prevent the Trojans from dominating the offensive glass. The Bruins failed miserably in this regard. USC grabbed an amazing 19 offensive rebounds in the first half alone and 24 overall for the game. The Trojans scored a total of 22 second chance points, and that was basically the reason why USC won. With their total rebounding margin at 46-33, USC was able to launch 44 first half shots to UCLA's 28, and overall the Trojans took 9 more shots than the Bruins did, and shot 37 FTs to UCLA's 15 (UCLA fouled a lot at the end, and USC got the ball inside a lot more than UCLA, which explains the discrepancy in FTs attempted; we cannot blame a conspiracy by the refs, though the refs were pretty awful, especially on a bizarro intentional foul called on Rico late in the game).
I honestly believed that UCLA wouldn't come through in any of those key areas, and that's why I predicted a USC blowout victory. UCLA's performance was much stronger than I expected, and while I still have doubts about this team, I'm also still positive about the its prospects for the season, though the next 7 games will pretty much set the table for what the Bruins can hope to accomplish this year.
The game was very close for the first 18 minutes. USC started out fast with a couple of 3s by Brandon Granville and 2 unexpected 15-footers from Kostas Charissis. The Trojans were pressing fullcourt, but the Bruins countered by just passing over the top and either popping 3s (Matt Barnes, Jason Kapono) or driving to the basket (Billy Knight).
USC had a lot of trouble executing their halfcourt offense against UCLA's matchup zone. Dan Gadzuric, in particular, was a tower of power inside, fronting Sam Clancy with his big body and forcing the USC star out to the FT line and beyond for jump shots. With Brandon unable to penetrate and dish, Errick Craven, Desmon Farmer and David Bluthenthal were forcing up some 3s off the dribble instead of spotting up, and they bricked a lot of those shots (USC was 3-12 from 3 in the first half). However, it often seemed as if each Trojan miss was really a pass, an opportunity for David Bluthenthal (11 first half rebounds, 8 offensive) or Sam Clancy (10 first half rebounds, 5 offensive) to get an offensive rebound and either go back up with it or set up a new shot for someone else.
On their end, the Bruins also had trouble scoring. Dan continues to lose track of where he is in relation to the basket, and shot some air balls from less than 4 feet away. Billy missed some open 3s. Jason had trouble getting free for his J. TJ Cummings looked confused and frightened, and Dijon Thompson looked the same. Matt Barnes, on the other hand, was calm and collected before almost 16,000 fans, as he scored on some nice drives, popped a couple of 3s and broke the Trojan press with ease.
As the clock reached the 2 minute mark, USC seemed to seize momentum, increasing their energy level as they finally converted some turnovers. The Trojans, up 30-29, scored the final 7 points of the half to finish the first 20 minutes with an 8-point lead, which was to be their biggest lead of the game.
As the second half began, Lavin shifted the Bruins into a man defense. By matching up his interior defenders against the Trojans' inside players, Lavin seemed to find a way to keep USC off the offensive glass (USC got only 5 second half offensive rebounds). However, this move also enabled USC to penetrate more effectively and thus the Trojan jump shooters had more time to spot up for their 3s.
The Bruins got into a series of mini-runs with the Trojans that always resulted in the Trojans reclaiming that 8-point margin. Billy and Jason started to score and each hit a 3 in the first 8 minutes of the half. Matt continued to pop 3s, as well as scoring inside, including a beautiful baseline drive that you usually don't see this side of the NBA. However, every time the Bruins crept back in, it seemed as if David Bluthenthal would counter with a key 3 or else Brandon Granville or Errick Craven would make a great, athletic drive into the key. USC was still up, 57-50, at the 10-minute mark.
Now, Lavin made another decision: He terminated his bench with extreme prejudice, except for about 4 more minutes of awful PT for TJ. Other than the last minute, Lavin pretty much went with his starters, his vets. Did the move pay off? Well, yes and no. The Bruins clawed their way back in with some good d and Matt Barnes' red-hot outside shooting to tie the game at 62-62 (after scoring 6 straight points) with less than 4 minutes to go, the first tie since the game was 25-25 in the first half.
The Bruins kept pace until it was 66-66. Then David popped another 3. The Bruins came down, missed a shot, Billy got the offensive rebound, missed a 3-footer, Dan got the offensive rebound, shot an air ball from 2 feet out (the ball missed the basket by at least a foot), and then USC got a fastbreak off the rebound and Errick Craven scored as he was fouled. Errick missed the FT, but USC led 71-66 with only 2:10 to go. The game seemed all but over (from my vantage point, I couldn't see any foul committed against either Billy or Dan on that play).
Matt refused to lose. He just kept stepping out and bombing it in. As the clock wound down, UCLA desperately went into a press and then fouled the Trojans at every opportunity. USC would usually make 1 FT, and then Matt, Jason and Billy each hit NBA-range 3s to bring the Bruins within 76-74 before the Trojans broke the Bruins' press and Sam got a slam to put the game away. More SC FTs accounted for the final score. USC fans swarmed onto the floor to celebrate the Trojan victory.
USC shot only 25% in the first half against the zone, but hit 60.9% of their second half FGs against the man and press. UCLA shot 50% in the second half, and 46.6% overall, the 2nd highest FG% this year by a Trojan opponent. Here are the individual highlights:
For USC, Sam got 19 points and 12 rebounds, but only made 5-15 shots from the floor, as Dan Gadzuric forced him to shoot a lot of jump shots. Dan's defense reminded me a little of the Zidek-Williamson confrontation in the '95 championship game. Sam was a clutch 9-11 from the FT line, unusual for this 51.1% FT shooter. Brandon got 18 points, 3 assists and 0 turnovers in 33 minutes. David was 3-6 from 3 en route to 16 points and 18 big rebounds. Errick got 13 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in a very good all-around performance, though he was only 1-5 from 3. Desmon had 8 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists off the bench, and Robert Hutchinson played 8 key minutes, 7 in the second half with the game on the line and Brandon in foul trouble and little winded.
For UCLA, Matt Barnes set some new career highs, scoring 34 points on 12-17 from the field and 7-11 from 3 (oddly, the refs failed to credit Matt with 2 of his 3s until Lavin protested and asked the refs to review the plays on the TV monitor; I've never seen that happen twice in the same game). Matt also had 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers in 37 minutes. Matt was absolutely brilliant, almost stunning, on offense. If he can do this against the best defensive team in the Pac-10, he might have a brighter future in the NBA than his teammate, Jason Kapono. On the negative side, Matt must take a big part of the blame for USC's dominance of the offensive glass, though perhaps it's the zone that's really to blame.
Billy got 17 points, but only hit 4-11 overall and 2-6 from 3. Billy took some terrible shots, and made some bad mistakes against the USC press. To his credit, he made 7-8 FTs, and he also did a good job of harassing Brandon when UCLA was in the matchup zone. When UCLA went man to man, Billy's comparative lack of foot speed became apparent.
Jason is now officially in a slump. He had 13 points (5-10 from the field, 3-4 from 3), 5 rebounds and 2 assists. Not bad shooting numbers, but Jason put up a couple of weak shots, and just isn't playing with the same energy he showed earlier in the season. Perhaps he is fatigued from playing so much PG, but then again he's 21 years old and he ought to be in shape. Jason isn't chasing after loose balls or playing with any intensity at the defensive end. He's pulling his shots too much, trying to draw fouls but avoid hard contact at the same time, a tricky maneuver that isn't fooling any of the refs. He needs to suck it up and play harder.
Dan is Dan is Dan. He has bad hands and no court sense. But he grabbed 16 rebounds against a very tough rebounding team, and he played very good d on Sam Clancy and helped plug up the zone inside in the first half. He was only 3-10 from the field, and he simply has a hard time making shots with his back to the basket (though he did hit a weird J turning the wrong way). Dan will always have his limitations, but he can be tough underneath. TJ played perhaps the worst game of his career. He was 1-6 from the field as he got 2 points and 1 rebound in 17 minutes. The Trojans totally dominated the glass whenever TJ was in the game. He played no defense. His defense was so bad that on one play, Matt literally had to grab TJ with both hands and shove him 5 feet across the lane to move him into defensive position on his man.
Rico again hustled, played good d and turned in some unselfish, mistake-free ball, getting 2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 0 turnovers in 24 minutes. Dijon Thompson managed 4 fouls in 8 minutes. Andre Patterson blocked 2 shots the second he stepped on the court, but played only 2 minutes. Ced saw 7 minutes in the first half and got an assist and a turnover, but did not play in the second half. I don't know if he had a problem with his knee at halftime. Ryan Walcott came in to press in the last minute and he got a steal and converted it into a layup.
Now for some general comments:
The Bruins only forced 10 Trojan turnovers. The Trojans make less mistakes than any team in the Pac-10, so perhaps that's not surprising. But when you combine it with USC's rebounding edge, especially on the offensive glass in the first half, UCLA is left with an inescapable fact: Its zone is too double-edged right now for the team to win the Pac-10. They can control penetration and choke off spot-up opportunities, but only at the cost of giving up too many second looks and not forcing enough mistakes to make up for all those second looks. The Bruins must change something. They must either find a way of cutting down on the opponents' offensive rebounds, or they must find a way to cause more turnovers. UCLA has a big team, not a quick team. They are more likely to find a way to rebound better than to force more turnovers. Unless Lavin is going to pull that press out of mothballs…
How can UCLA become a better rebounding team in the matchup zone? Apart from convincing the top 6 players to just work a lot harder and become more physical and energetic and scrappy, I'm not sure there is a solution. At this point, it might make more sense to insert Dijon Thompson into the starting lineup for Rico Hines. His advantage of height, long arms and quickness might help. Rico has made a good contribution to the Bruins for the past 10 games, even if most BRO posters don't seem to appreciate it, and perhaps UCLA needed Rico to start or the team might not have won 9 straight games, but watching Dijon wilt against Georgetown and now again before a big crowd in a big game against USC, I can't help wonder if Lavin might not have sacrificed too much long-term gains by not giving Dijon the starting nod awhile back. Instead of seeing spot minutes off the bench, mainly with TJ and Andre, Dijon would have seen more time with the first squad and that could have enhanced his development.
This, of course, is playing "what if," a total (second) guessing game, and there really isn't a right answer here. If Dijon had started after the Pepperdine game, maybe UCLA would have lost to Irvine, Washington and Georgetown. Who knows? But moving Dijon into the lineup now should improve the team's rebounding. If Dijon gains confidence, he could give the team a big shot in the arm with a burst of FR enthusiasm. If Ced is healthy, I'd vote to give him the starting nod against Kansas. I wouldn't start TJ until he agreed to become a man.
The alternative road, trying to cause more turnovers, is perhaps too much to ask of Lavin (or reality) as the Bruins head into the teeth of their schedule. The solution here is obvious: Play Andre Patterson, Ryan Walcott, Dijon and Ced more and the starters less. Those 4 guys are the quickest players on the team. Next year, the Bruins could have a pretty quick team. If Lavin is going to stick with the vets this year, we will be slow until the end of time. The Trojans were also the more energetic team for most of the game. Some of the Bruins, especially Jason and TJ, might need a gut check right now.
That's the bad news. The good news continues to be that our vets are pretty dangerous on offense. We went up against the best defensive team in the conference (and one of the best in the country, IMO) and even with TJ playing a horrible game and Dan largely being ineffective on offense, we almost won anyway. Matt, Jason and Billy are the terrible trio; it doesn't seem possible to hold down more than 1 of them at a time. Most of TJ's shots were just taken without confidence. If TJ had knocked down a couple of Js early, UCLA might've beaten USC. He's had more good games than bad this year. Even if some of our turnovers were painfully unforced, and even if some came at crucial moments, we generally broke the Trojan press with ease and if you discount the G-Town game we've made the fewest turnovers of any team in the conference over the last 10 games, a remarkable statistic if you think about it. I mean, this is UCLA: Turnover U.
USC came into this game red-hot, and they were playing in front of 16,000 wailing fans, of whom 10,000 were actually rooting for them. USC fans are loud, abusive and obnoxious; in other words, USC has great fans, as compared to the usual zombies who haunt Pauley Pavilion. The 6,000 Bruin fans at the game made more noise than most home sellout crowds can muster. USC came out and hit UCLA with everything they had. At the final buzzer, the USC team and its fans acted as if they'd won the NC. UCLA took everything that got thrown at them and they nearly threw it all back. Under the circumstances, the Bruins played a pretty strong game.
But they do have to improve their rebounding. Especially since Kansas is coming to town…