There are just so many frightening indicators.
USC is 11-15 and 4-11 in conference, a team you would expect, by looking at their record, UCLA should beat. After all, UCLA should be up amped up for it, playing with great effort and intensity as it tries to secure an NCAA bid.
On the other hand, USC has had a horrendous season, having fired its head coach and being under the direction of an interim head coach, and their season is close to unsalvageable.
USC tends to be a mess at times on the court, while UCLA, at times, has shown to be a well-disciplined team.
It's a situation ripe for an upset.
USC, for one, should be loose for the game. Their only real issue for them is that they're playing for a berth in the Pac-10 tournament but, heck, that's not anything to tighten up over.
UCLA, though, you could easily see seizing up, as it did at times against Stanford on Sunday.
While every game recently has been a test for UCLA in one way or another, this one is no exception. The test here is: Can UCLA Hold Serve and Not Choke Any Games It Should Win Down the Stretch.
A win tonight is truly critical for UCLA's NCAA tournament chances. In looking at the remaining schedule, it's a game you project as a win, but a loss would be devastating, putting the Bruins considerably up against the wall in terms of an NCAA tournament bid.
Other than the intangibles, the really scary aspect of the game is that USC is talented, at least as much as UCLA. Their veterans, collectively, are easily as good as UCLA's, and you could make a case that their two starting freshmen are at least comparable to the Bruins'.
Recently, for USC, it has all started with freshman point guard, 6-3 Gabriel Pruitt. He has been out of his mind of late, increasing his point average to 12.7 per game. In his last four games he's averaged 19.5 points per game, while also averaging 4.5 three-pointers per game. He's shot an astounding 53% from three in that span. He's played well overall offensively and strong on the defensive end.
USC's other freshman, the athletic Nick Young, in that same span, is averaging 15 points per game, shooting the ball well and not turning it over as much as he did in the first half of the season.
Against Cal on Sunday, USC played probably its best game of the season, blowing out the Bears, 89-70. Pruitt and Young combined for 34 points and seven threes.
They have been aided considerably by the emergence of another teammate, 6-8 senior power forward Jeff McMillan, who scored 19 points himself against Cal. He did it with some great quickness and strength in the paint, also pulling down 10 rebounds.
The three of them, when they're playing well, present a very tough defensive matchup for UCLA. UCLA's best post defender, which is Michael Fey, will probably get the assignment of guarding McMillan, which is a tough matchup for him, necessitating that UCLA will have to double him. That leaves Dijon Thompson to guard 6-11 Rory O'Neil, and while O'Neil isn't tough physically he is pretty skilled, which makes it tough on the much smaller Thompson. So, while UCLA is trying to keep the post guarded, McMillan is a great post passer, and he'll be kicking it back out to Pruitt and Young. And then we didn't even mention USC's leading scorer, Lodrick Stewart, who is averaging 13 points a game and shooting 41% from three. Also, not to mention, the fact that O'Neil is a very good outsid shooter himself. Then, while you're keeping track of all of those guys, there's also Greg Guenther, the 6-8, 250-pound post, who comes in and doesn't allow you to let up in post defense, and 5-10 sharpshooter Dwayne Shackleford.
Jim Saia, the interim Trojan coach, has gone to the 1-4 offense he employed while an assistant at UCLA. While some of the Trojans have grumbled, since it's a more structured offense, it has generally been good for USC, giving them more of an identified objective on every offensive possession, limiting the amount of one-on-one offensive play, creating more open looks from the outside and cutting down on turnovers.
USC's weakness throughout their up and down season hasn't been their offense as much as their defense. The Trojans are last in the league in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot close to 47%. They don't like to get back in transition, giving their opponents too many easy opportunites and generally play slack half-court D.
Again, this game will probably be all about defense. If UCLA can play defense solidly, like it did against Cal and ASU, two similar teams to USC but probably not as talented overall, they'll have a chance. They'll need to limit USC's athletes from getting out and running, make them execute in their half-court offense and revert back to one-on-one attempts. And then UCLA will have to be aggressive offensively from the outset, to take the energy out of any sustained defensive effort by USC. The Trojans stifled UCLA in their first meeting in the first half when they took an 18-point lead mostly due to a zone defense. UCLA, as Howland said this week, has come a long way in playing against a zone since that game, and almost relishes zones now, since it makes them be patient offensively.
So much has been put at the feet of UCLA's Dijon Thompson – that he's the barometer for UCLA's offense. If he's shooting well and scoring, UCLA's offense will be okay. And that's generally true. But as we've been saying, and as was evident against Stanford, Jordan Farmar also needs to be aggressive offensively for UCLA to score points.
As said above, it will be a good test to see if UCLA, with so much riding on the game, can not tighten up, stay loose, and win another must-win game.