UCLA's basketball team takes on the USC Trojans Saturday in the Sports Arena, in a very pivotal game for the Bruins.
USC is a team much better than their 9-10/2-6 record indicates. On any night, they have enough talent to easily play with anyone in the Pac-10, and even most of the country. They've under-achieved and been highly inconsistent this year due to the firing of head coach Henry Bibby earlier in the season.
UCLA (10-6, 4-4) is coming off its two most disappointing losses of the season, at home against Stanford and Cal last weekend. They were games that were huge in the win/loss column in a critical time in the season. They were potentially season-turning losses for the Bruins, who were playing well, sitting atop the Pac-10, edging toward a top-25 ranking and angling for the NCAA tournament before the losses. Those two losses might have dashed all of those aspirations.
The possibility of keeping those aspirations alive hinge immensely on Saturday's game against USC. It's all a matter of how far UCLA wants to back itself against the wall. If it loses to USC, it would be 10-7 with 10 games remaining on its regular-season schedule that include tough games such as at Washington, at Washington State, at Cal, at Stanford, at Notre Dame and Arizona at home. From a win/loss perspective, it could be critical in assuring UCLA a winning record for the season and any sliver of post-season hopes.
The game is also a matter of impression. UCLA had lost four games before last weekend, but generally had played hard and up to expectation in all four of those losses. You could easily assert that wasn't the case against either Cal or Stanford. It's critical for the general impression of this team, and the program, that UCLA play well against USC, to erase the impression it created after its last two games. It might not be just critical for its impression to the public, but for itself, too, to re-gain the confidence it had previously, heading into the last 10 games of the season. If on Saturday UCLA looks more like the team it did against the Bay Area schools and loses, you'd have to think the possibility of a late-season spiral would be more of reality.
USC lost its first five Pac-10 games, and didn't play well in any of them. The bottom of the barrel came when it dropped two losses against the Washington schools at home, getting blown out by Washington as well as Washington State.
But since then USC has been somewhat of a different team. It's 2-2, but the two losses were a tough-fought loss against Arizona on the road and one against Stanford at home. They were in both games and easily had a chance to win.
It then, also, beat Cal, 83-66, the same weekend, of course, that Cal soundly beat UCLA.
So, after a week off for both schools, there's a question as to which UCLA and USC teams you'll see on Saturday. If the UCLA team is closer to the one you saw in its first 16 games, and the USC team is closer to its early-season version, the Bruins would definitely have an edge.
But if UCLA is closer to the team it was against the Bay Area schools, and USC is the team it has been lately, it won't be pretty.
You'd have to think that USC will be highly motivated for the game and look more like its recent version. Its interim coach, Jim Saia, the former UCLA assistant, has to want to desperately win this game. For the USC players, it would give them a bit more personal vindication. USC's freshmen, Gabriel Pruitt and Nick Young, are close with UCLA's Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar and have plenty of their own motivation.
Pruitt, the 6-3 point guard, is probably the team's most talented player. As we said about him in high school, Pruitt is a long, fluid athlete with very good skills. It didn't take him long to come to USC and take over the point guard position, as much an indication of how good Pruitt is as how lacking USC was in terms of the position. He's playing just about 30 minutes per game, averages 11 points, and has been a consistent threat from three. He's coming off his best game of the season, scoring 23 points on 5-from-8 shooting from three.
Nick Young, the 6-5 freshman, has also been a big first-year contributor for the Trojans, averaging 10 points and 4 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. He's a great athlete, with very good quickness and explosive hops. Right now he's getting quite a bit done by relying on that athleticism, with his skills still coming along. He can get his shot going at times, though, but it's probably best to let him shoot from the outside rather than allowing him to drive.
USC's leading scorer is 6-4 sophomore wing, Lodrick Stewart, the last twin among two sets of twins that is still getting significant playing time at USC (Stewart's brother, Rodrick, transferred at the beginning of the season and, in fact, Lodrick has said he could too by the end of the season). He's averaging 14 points per game, and has become an excellent outside shooter. He's also an incredible athlete and loves to score in transition.
The other set of twins are the 6-3 seniors, Derrick and Errick Craven. Derrick has been starting at the point guard position, even though Pruitt has logged more minutes there. His brother, Errick, the lefty, is more of the scorer, but their out-of-control play has gotten both of them more bench time than court time, with Errick being down to 14 minutes per game. Saia has clearly opted for the freshmen rather than the Cravens.
But again, the Cravens are also both incredible athletes.
Starting upfront for the Trojans has been any two among four different players, and all four have been averaging about the same amount of minutes. Rory O'Neil is a 6-11 senior center who likes to shoot the ball more than play inside while averaging 9 points per game. And he's very good at it, too, shooting 40% from three. He's good for at least two three-point attempts per game. Inside he has decent post moves but isn't very physical. Jeff McMillan is a 6-8, 260-pound senior who is in the mold of Cal's David Paris, which isn't a good harbinger for UCLA. McMillan sat out some of the season with an injury, but is getting back into playing form, probably not coincidentally at the same time that USC has started to play better. In the last four games when USC has been better, McMillan has averaged 11 and 9, with his two most recent games each being double-doubles. He's a big-body with some quickness off the floor and good touch around the basket. He presents UCLA's biggest challenge in the low block.
Greg Guenther, the 6-9, 250-pound senior, is another big body that could be tough for UCLA. He's a one-time football player, and he likes to bang, while he's also developed some decent skills from 15-feet and in.
Nick Curtis, a 6-8 senior, has also started some games this season at power forward. He's not a great athlete, but has good skills.
Dwayne Shackleford, a 5-10 junior deep shooting threat, was injured after the seventh game of the season and has sat out since, intending to redshirt. But recently Saia said that Shackleford, who is now healthy, could again play sometime this season. It's unknown if that could be in the UCLA game.
If you've noticed, a consistent theme with this USC team is some superior athleticism, especially on the perimeter. With Pruitt, Stewart, Young and the Cravens, that's five very quick, athletic types that love to get out in transition on offense and also love to pressure the ball on defense. USC tries to force a quick tempo, and get its opponents to make bad decisions and force turnovers. They are #1 in the Pac-10 in steals, averaging a whopping 9 per game. On offense, they'll advance the ball quickly up the court to get easy scores in transition. If UCLA plays the type of transition defense it did against Cal, the game could be a USC highlight reel.
USC, though, is very inconsistent defensive team. If they're playing inspired, they're tough defensively, especially when they employ full-court pressure, which you can expect to see against UCLA. But they're also lazy in their half-court defense, and are last in the league in scoring defense (76 points) and field goal percentage defense (46.4%). Because of this, USC tends to play a great deal of zone, and given how UCLA struggled against the zone in the Cal game, you can expect USC to zone UCLA for a majority of the game Saturday.
USC has some good talent down to its ninth man, with some good perimeter athletes, some good shooters and some beefy inside scorers. You could easily make the case that they have more talent than UCLA overall.
They can be a mess at times, though. They haven't gotten solid play from their veteran perimeter players and are highly dependent on their young perimeter players, who can be erratic.
USC definitely falls into the run-and-gun category of teams in the conference, similar in style to Arizona, Washington and Oregon. Luckily, it's a style that UCLA's more disciplined, controlled style has matched up with well this season. So much of this game will be decided by two things - whether UCLA plays inspired defense, and whether it can hit its open outside shots, which it is destined to get against USC.