USC Preview

UCLA hosts USC Wednesday night in what has now become a key game for the Bruins, both in the conference and overall, and because it's a critical time for UCLA in its season. Will UCLA continue to play with focus, or will it succumb to the injuries?

USC comes into Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday with a record of 12-5, and 3-3 in the PAC-10. The Trojans have succeeded beyond most expectations already in Coach Tim Floyd's first year, returning only 4 scholarship players entering the season but getting key contributions from several newcomers while still relying on three players for the bulk of their scoring and leadership.

The Trojans run a three guard line-up that starts at the point with freshman Ryan Francis (5'11" 170 lb.). Francis is a quick guard who knows how to control a game. He is averaging almost a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But because he is a freshman, he has had several clunkers, including the Cal and Washington games. He isn't the same type of player that Darren Collison is, in that he is more of a pure point. His shooting percentages are low; only 40% from the floor and 23% from behind the arc. One of the keys to the game will be whether the Bruins will be able to keep Francis out of the lane where he can drive and dish very well. Francis also rebounds well for his size, averaging over 3 per game for the season. Finally, Francis is a decent free throw shooter, averaging 70% for the year. Like any freshman though, Francis can play out of control, and it will be incumbent on the UCLA defense, and probably Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison in particular, to force Francis into poor decisions.

The second guard in the Trojan line-up is one of their "big three" players, junior Lodrick Stewart (6'4" 110 lb.). Stewart has become more of the third option on offense for the Trojans, but he can get hot and go off for 20 points. Stewart likes to penetrate to the basket, especially from the baseline, but he also like to shoot the 3 and while his shooting percentage this season is average, 46%, he is dangerous from behind the arc where he is averaging 39%. Stewart likes to shoot the three, having taken the second-most 3 point shots on the team. His other numbers are also fairly solid, averaging 12.6 PPG and 4.1 RPG. The Trojans will be a tough team to defend for UCLA because of their three scoring options, and because Mike Roll will have to defend one of them. The guess is that Roll will start on Stewart because, if for nothing else, Stewart is only the third option on offense. Roll matches up fine from a size standpoint, but Stewart is much quicker than Roll, and Roll will have to continue to play the positionally smart defense he has the past two games to succeed in this match-up. Ultimately the Bruins may have to play Collison more simply to help defend Stewart. Stewart does have an Achilles Heel, though; he is a very average foul shooter at 65% for the year.

The third guard is arguably USC's best player, sophomore Gabe Pruitt (6'4" 170 lb.). Pruitt is more of a scorer than anything. He has taken the second most shots on the team and leads the team in 3-point attempts by a wide margin. In fact, Pruitt has made 5 or more 3 pointers in 4 straight games, while averaging 39% from behind the arc. He is also quick enough and crafty enough to get to the hoop, and does so often, and is good at drawing fouls, with more free throw attempts than any other Trojan player and averaging almost 80% from the line. Pruitt can also play the point, and is second on the team in assists. But as in the case of Stewart, Pruitt has an Achilles Heel, too, often playing out of control, as evidenced by his team-leading 51 turnovers, and his turnovers have a way of limiting what looked to be a large USC run. Arron Afflalo will probably be assigned Pruitt, and it's a great match-up since Afflalo doesn't have Pruitt's quickness, but he is much stronger than Pruitt and he'll have to use that strength to limit his scoring, with Pruitt averaging 19.5 PPG in conference play. It's also a great match-up since the two are long-time best friends, so if there's anyone who knows how to slow down Pruitt, it's probably Afflalo.

The third member of the big three is sophomore Nick Young (6'6" 195 lb.). While Afflalo has been among the few names being discussed early for PAC-10 player of the year, Young has quietly put up very similar numbers (17.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG), being the Trojan leader in both scoring and rebounding. Young is an exceptional athlete, with a very quick first step. This year he is also burying the three quite often, averaging 42% on his shots form behind the arc. But first and foremost, Young is a slasher. He, like Pruitt, will find ways to get to the basket, and when he gets there, he is either shooting at better than 50%, or he is getting to the line where he is averaging 80% for the season. Young will, in many ways, be the most difficult match-up for the Bruins. He is clearly the best athlete on a team with four very good ones. However, in games where Young has struggled this season the player assigned to him has been bigger and longer, much like UCLA's Luc Mbah a Moute. Luc will have to use his size to slow down Young, because in conference, Young's average rises to a shade under 20 PPG. The best way to slow down Young is to force him to move side to side, rather than to a spot. Young gets frustrated moving side to side, and Luc's wingspan could force him to do just that.

The fifth starter is the only true post, junior college transfer Abdoulaye Ndiaye (6'11" 230 lb.). Ndaiye is starting primarily because the previous starter, freshman RouSean Cromwell, went down with a foot injury and won't be back for several weeks. Ndiaye has done some nice things for Floyd, averaging Lorenzo Mata-type numbers at 4.4 PPG and 4.5 RPG. But more importantly, he gives the Trojans an imposing defensive post presence. Ndaiye has 28 blocks on the year. He isn't the same player as Cal's Devon Hardin, but he may be able to intimidate the Bruins when they penetrate the way that Hardin was several weeks ago. The Bruin's post-by-committee will have to be sure to keep Ndiaye off the boards and also be enough of an offensive threat to make Ndiaye think before sliding over to block a shot.

If the Trojans get any of their starters in foul trouble, they may be in for a rough night. Three Trojan reserves average over 10 minutes per game combined. They are freshman Jeremy Barr (6'8" 265 lb.), freshman Sead Odzic (6'3" 180 lb.), and senior Dwayne Shackleford (5'10" 185 lb.). Barr is a true post who can play with his back to the basket. But he is nowhere near the athlete that Ndiaye is. In fact, if Barr has to play significant minutes, the Trojans will have to slow down their favored quick tempo. Odzic is strictly a shooter. If he is in the game, the Bruins will need to do a better job of recognizing him than they did in the second half on Saturday of finding Ryan Appleby. Shackleford will run in to give the three guards a rest, and he is the only senior to get minutes. But he also plays the least of those in Floyd's rotation.

The Trojans have a formidable starting 5, with three players who can each put up 20 points on Wednesday. That third scoring option and the ability of all three to create their own shot is something that the Bruins just don't have right now. But this is a game where the Bruins probably have an advantage against the Trojans in terms of bench strength. This is in spite of the injuries that the Bruins have suffered. With Collison, Alfred Aboya (probably), Ryan Hollins, and either Michael Fey or Janou Rubin, the Bruins can throw more bodies at the Trojans, especially up front, than the Trojans can throw back. How the Bruin front line plays will probably be the key to this game. USC is very weak in the low post, and the Bruins must find a way to take advantage of that. If they can do some things offensively in the low post, there is a possibility of getting Young in foul trouble.

The Trojans are a more disciplined team this year under Floyd than perhaps they ever were under Henry Bibby. USC is holding opponents to a 41% shooting percentage, and has held nine of their opponents under 40%. They have also held 13 of their opponents to less than 70 points. Because of this and the fact that USC likes to run, the Bruins will have to control the tempo much like they did in the first half of the Washington game. The Trojans are 2nd in the conference in steals and are forcing opponents to commit over 18 turnovers per game.

In many ways this Trojan team reminds me of the Bruins from last season. They have a coach who is preaching defense, but they sometimes don't listen and let their "playground" style come out. Generally when other teams have slowed the game down the Trojans have been pretty successful. They beat ASU, WSU and Stanford, teams that want to shorten the game. The Trojans have had trouble against the quicker, up-tempo teams like Arizona and Washington. The Bruins have to take care of the ball and be as efficient on offense as they were in the first half on Saturday. They must play a very good defensive game to keep the Trojans out of the lane, again, like they did in the first half on Saturday. This really isn't a good match-up for the Bruins right now. With the backcourt so thin right now, unless Collison steps up along with Wright, Aboya and Hollins, the Bruins will have a tough time winning. That being said, the Bruins have shown a mental toughness this year when faced with adversity and this game is no different. It will be close, but the edge goes to the home team.

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