USC has been playing well recently. They are tied for first in the PAC-10 Conference along with Arizona, UCLA and Washington State, and they could legitimately be 4-0 (of course, they could also be 1-3). The game with the Trojans isn't going to be about systems as it is going to be a game about intensity, teamwork, and above all, match-ups…individual match-ups.
USC Coach Tim Floyd has proven that he can adjust his team to fit the needs of a particular game. He more than likely sees the lack of real depth that the Bruins now possess because of the loss of Josh Shipp for this game. As a result, expect Floyd to continue to utilize the small, running lineup that he has started the past few games. The Bruins proved this past weekend in Eugene that they may have trouble coping defensively with a smaller, quicker opponent, and USC will primarily go with what is essentially a four-guard lineup. Quite frankly, USC is better coached, has better go-to players (although Aaron Brooks might argue this point), and plays better team defense that Oregon, and UCLA just lost to Oregon with Josh Shipp.
Floyd's Trojans are beginning to hit their stride as junior Gabe Pruitt (6'4" 170 lbs.) has returned from an academic suspension. Pruitt has now played in six games and started four. He is being forced to play out of position at the point, but many teams would love to have a player of Pruitt's caliber running their offense. Because Pruitt has been out for so long it's probably best to simply ignore his statistics and talk about what he is capable of doing. Pruitt was highly recruited coming out of high school and many thought that UCLA both wanted and needed him. In fact, some recruiting services had him neck and neck as a prospect with Arron Afflalo, and our own resident scouts, Greg Hicks and Tracy Pierson, were extremely high on Pruitt. He is very quick, certainly more so than most 6'4" players that the Bruins will see this season. He has a nice pull-up jumper, is strong enough to get into the lane and to the hoop, and even though he's a streaky shooter, when he gets hot from beyond the arc he becomes virtually unstoppable. On the defensive end, Pruitt is quick enough to guard smaller players and has the size to take on players of his size. Now, before people start thinking that all is lost with regard to Pruitt, he does have some qualities that can drive a coach crazy. He keeps shooting, even when his shot is off, and he can single-handedly shoot his team out of a game. He's not a natural point guard so he inevitably makes some boneheaded decisions over the course of a game. Finally, when his offensive game is off, it really affects his defensive game. He tends to get lazy, reach too much and stop playing any real help side defense when USC is playing man defense. Make no mistake, though: Pruitt is very good. The probability is that Darren Collison will be asked to guard Pruitt and he will have to be much better on the defensive end than he was on Saturday against Oregon. Collison, Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook must keep Pruitt in front of them and yet still be close enough to contest his outside shot. They must force Pruitt to move laterally on the offensive end so that the USC offense will stagnate. Washington State proved that this can be done as Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low really gave Pruitt fits.
The shooting guard spot is ostensibly manned by senior Lodrick Stewart (6'4" 210 lbs.), who seems like he's been at USC for the past decade. Stewart is the second leading scorer on USC, averaging 14.3 PPG. He is also averaging 4.2 RPG and leads the team with 20 steals. Stewart is the least likely of the Trojan guards/wings to drive to the basket, while he's the team's best 3-point shooter, having taken 86 of them up to this point and averaging 44%. Many people would guess that Mike Roll would be assigned to guard Stewart, but I truly believe that Stewart will be taken by either Collison or Afflalo -- whoever isn't guarding Pruitt. Stewart is a very dangerous offensive threat for the Trojans and will need one of the Bruins' best defenders to keep him in check. Stewart's greatest asset, however, might be his length in the Trojans' match-up zone defense. Floyd has utilized his team's athleticism and length to help form a defense that uses Floyd's man principles in a zone defense.
The most dangerous wing on USC is junior Nick Young (6'6" 200 lbs.), a future NBA player. Young has the entire offensive package. He can shoot (45% from ‘3'), he can drive, he's strong and he can shoot free throws (75% for the season). Young, if he were better known, could be considered one of the best players in the nation, with good reason. There are many times that he has taken the Trojans on his shoulders and carried them to a win. Not surprisingly, when Young has been slowed down or even stopped, as he was at Pauley Pavilion last season, the Trojans get blown out. Young, as much as any of the Trojans, has bought into the defensive philosophy of Floyd, being second on the team in steals with 16 and second on the team in rebounding at 4.3 RPG. In order to slow down Young a defender either needs to be very quick or very long, or both, as Cedric Bozeman was last year. That's why I believe that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will be matched up on Young and not Taj Gibson. Luc is quick enough to stay with Young for the most part, but when he isn't, he's long enough to keep him moving laterally and forcing him to shoot outside instead of getting inside. If this does indeed prove to be the match-up, then I fully expect it to be the one that dictates the outcome of the game.
The last wing is freshman Dwight Lewis (6'5" 200 lbs.), a slasher from Louisiana, who is probably the least dangerous offensive player in the Trojan starting lineup. Lewis is shooting only 39% from the floor and 21% from behind the arc. He isn't particularly quick, either, but he is also essentially playing out of position. Lewis is also only shooting 62% from the line. This is why Mike Roll will probably be used primarily to guard him, at least initially. This isn't a slam on Roll's ability to play defense, in fact, Roll's probably been playing better fundamental defense than Shipp up to this point. Roll, however, simply isn't quick enough to stay up with players like Young or Pruitt.
In the post is probably the most impressive freshman in the PAC-10 Conference, freshman Taj Gibson (6'9" 210 lbs.), a rebounding machine that will remind many of Luc from last year. Gibson has been a match-up nightmare for teams that don't have athletic and long, springy ‘4's to stay with him. He has had rough games against teams that can match-up with him, like Kansas, where although he had 15 points and 9 boards, Gibson also had 11 turnovers, and Kansas State, where Gibson finished with 7 points, 6 boards, 6 turnovers and he fouled out. Both teams had 4s that could hang with him. Mata is probably too slow to hang with Gibson, but if LoMata had been averaging 9 PPG and was somewhat of an offensive force, then I could see Mata getting big minutes because he would cause a defensive mismatch for the Trojans. But with the Bruins being a perimeter-dominated team, look for Alfred Aboya and his energy to get most of the minutes in the post against Gibson. After that, you shouldn't be surprised to see James Keefe get minutes against Gibson since it's plainly a bad match-up for Mata. Gibson averages 13.6 PG and 9.3 RPG, both numbers better than Luc, who he has been compared to most often. Gibson is entirely a post player, though, in that he hasn't attempted a ‘3'. He is also pretty average from the charity stripe, where he is shooting 65%. Gibson also has 32 blocks on the year, which comes out to be about 2 BPG. That might be somewhat negated against the Bruins because they are such a perimeter-oriented team. The biggest knock on Gibson is that he can be a turnover machine, having committed 53 on the year ( at least 3 per game).
Floyd actually plays quite a deep bench, and it includes three players who are used to starting games. Up front, Floyd can call on shot-blocking senior Abdoulaye N'daiye (6'11" 220 lbs.), a thin and springy post who started much of last season. N'daiye gives Floyd 16 MPG and hits almost 60% of his shots. But he is a player that wins his minutes on the defensive end. He blocks shots and would average about 8 RPG if he played 30-40 minutes. N'daiye has started 10 games this year. Also up front Floyd can go with sophomore RouSean Cromwell (6'11" 217 lbs.), who was a starter as a freshman until a leg injury short-circuited his season. Cromwell hasn't reached the level of confidence that he had before his injury last season, but he is averaging 15 MPG and plays in much the same way that N'daiye does. If USC goes big, one of these two big men will be on the floor.
Floyd's backcourt depth is centered on freshman Daniel Hacket (6'5" 205 lbs.), who manned the point when Pruitt was out. Hackett does lead the team with 58 assists and did a pretty good job for someone who was asked to play out of position. Hackett, much like fellow freshman Lewis, is a pretty poor shooter, averaging well below 40% from the floor. With the return of Pruitt, Hackett's minutes have been substantially reduced, although he did play 28 minutes against Oregon last week.
Floyd's bench is rounded out by sophomore forward Keith Wilkinson (6'10" 220lbs.), who rebounds well for the minutes he plays, freshmen Kyle Austin (6'7" 195 lbs.) and Kevin Galloway (6'7" 200 lbs.). All three players average around 10 minutes per game.
So there are the match-ups, and quite frankly, they don't look all that great for the Bruins. USC is playing with confidence and the Bruins are…well, who knows how they'll respond to their first loss of the season and the loss of Shipp.
In terms of game play, losing Shipp may not hurt as much as you might think. On the defensive end, with 5 healthy bodies on the floor, the Bruins should be tighter and more cohesive regarding their team defensive play. Offensively it will hurt (he is the team's second leading scorer), as it will allow the Trojans to focus more on shutting down Afflalo. But it also might allow the offense to flow more because there won't be two players competing to get their shots. Of course, that might mean that Afflalo thinks he needs to carry the team offensively, at which point the offense will really break down.
A lot of this game will also depend on intensity. Will the Bruins play like they did in the Oregon game or the Washington game? Hard to predict. You'd like to assume that the Bruins will step up the intensity, but they are just kids.
USC can beat a team in a few ways, and most of those ways come from the wing. In this particular game, no matter how you try to think of it in terms of spinning it in your head, the Bruins will need huge games from Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook because they are the most likely ones to replace Shipp's points and minutes. I think that Roll is the more likely of the two to do that. He won't get rattled as he did last year when Cedric Bozeman was out. He is also a more disciplined player, and discipline is UCLA's best weapon in this game. Westbrook may be a bit too out of control at times to really help the Bruins as any turnovers will allow the Trojans to run. If Shipp were playing and healthy, I'd probably predict a close Bruin win. Losing him, though, could be a bit too much to overcome, even if the defense plays well. Yes, I am predicting a Bruin loss for the first time this year. If the players coming in for Shipp had a game to get their feet wet (like, say, against ASU on the preceding Thursday), then I might also change my tune. But this is the game on the schedule and, really, it couldn't have come at a worse time because of the match-ups.