UCLA just trounced the Oregon schools (don't let the 12-point score line disguise the fact that the Bruins were clearly better than the Ducks in all facets of the game last Thursday), and now sit alone in first place in the PAC-10 at 9-2.
The USC Trojans also swept the Oregon schools (almost blowing a game against the Ducks), and now sit in a second-place tie with Washington State in the PAC-10 at 8-3.
UCLA plays USC Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion in a nationally televised game on Fox Sports. With all due respect to Washington State, and I truly mean that, this is now the game of the year in the PAC-10 Conference. Wazzu hosts the Bay Area schools this week and that Stanford game, even in Pullman, is going to be very difficult for both teams. The Cougars still have to travel to the Oregon schools. In short, if UCLA beats USC on Wednesday that will open up a two-game lead between the Bruins and everyone else except Washington State, and Wazzu will have the tougher remaining schedule. If the Bruins win against the Trojans there is a good chance that UCLA will have a two-game lead over the rest of the conference by the time the Bruins go into Pullman at the end of the month. Wednesday's game against the Trojans is that big. Hopefully most of the nation will watch the game as a showcase for the conference after many fans will undoubtedly watch North Carolina visit what is quickly becoming ACC also-ran, Duke.
Let's keep all the questions about motivation and focus to a minimum. Both teams are going to come into this game fired up and ready for the contest. USC will be feeling the anger from a game that they felt they let slip away against the Bruins a few weeks ago. Remember? The Bruins were playing without Josh Shipp…USC was hitting shots from all over the place…they had a solid halftime lead…the Trojans led by double-digits fairly late into the second half…the crowd was large and intensely pushing for a home court Trojan win…and the Bruins coolly won on an Arron Afflalo mid-range jumper with only seconds to go. Yeah, USC was stung by that loss and Coach Tim Floyd won't let them forget it.
UCLA, on the other hand, can clearly look at this game and see several things, not the least of which is their ability to put to rest the idea that USC is in any way catching them as a team or a program. The Bruins also see the light of a conference championship at the end of the tunnel, which is getting closer all the time. The Bruins can start making this "race" a forgone conclusion and, by the way they played this last week against the Oregon schools, it looks as though they're starting to see that light, following the leadership of Afflalo, who is quickly becoming the most complete player on the West Coast.
The catalyst for USC is junior wing Nick Young (6'6" 195lbs.), who has NBA talent and is as athletic wing as UCLA has faced, or probably will face, this season. Young leads the Trojans in scoring at 17 PPG. He is shooting 52% from the floor, which is excellent considering how many jump shots he takes, 46% from behind the arc and 76% from the free throw line. He's also second on the team in rebounding at 4.6 RPG. Young has the quickness to get to the basket and his court vision is such that he can find teammates when he goes to the hole after the help defense slides over. His jump-shooting ability makes him a true triple threat on offense (shooting, driving, passing), and it will take a superlative effort to slow him down, let alone stop him. Enter Afflalo, who is starting to look like the lock-down defender he was at the end of last year. Afflalo is stronger than Young and, while Young may be quicker, Afflalo's savvy on the defensive end can help mitigate Young's advantage in quickness and athleticism. This match-up is a marquee one and if Afflalo (or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) can cause Young to have an off game, then the Bruins will win.
If Afflalo isn't placed on Young then he will be asked to guard junior point guard Gabe Pruitt (6'4" 170 lbs.). Pruitt really is a point guard in name only as Coach Floyd really has no better option at the point. Pruitt was out for part of the season with academic difficulties, but is beginning to round into form. "Beginning" is the operative word as Pruitt's numbers have been nowhere near what they were last year when he was playing the two guard spot. Some of this lack of scoring punch can be attributed to the fact that he's more responsible for running the offense now, but it's his shooting percentage that hasn't been up to snuff. He's averaging 9.9 PPG, but he's only averaging 39% from the floor and 34% from the three-point line. Pruitt is clearly not attacking the goal as much as he was last year. He's settling more for jumpers and it has caused his shooting percentage to drop from last year. He is leading the team at 3.4 APG but, quite frankly, a player of his skill and athleticism should be scoring more and shooting better if he's only averaging such a measly assist total. In the first meeting this season Afflalo forced Pruitt into some questionable decisions late in the game. Expect Afflalo (or Darren Collison and/or Russell Westbrook) to try and do the same thing. As game planning goes, if the Bruins can't slow down Young then getting to Pruitt is the next best thing because Floyd really doesn't have anyone else to truly initiate the offense.
The shooter in what is essentially a four-guard offense is senior Lodrick Stewart (6'4" 170 lbs.). Forget his statistics; Stewart is the one Trojan who, if he gets hot, can shoot an opposing team off the court. He is hitting 44% from behind the arc and almost half of his shots this season have come from the three-point line. In fact, Stewart has taken more than twice as many threes than anyone else on the team. Howland may place Afflalo on Stewart so that the Trojan senior has trouble getting off his shot (As an aside: I have placed Afflalo on three possible Trojan players simply to illustrate how many options Howland has in guarding the Trojan personnel). Stewart hit some big shots in the game at the Galen Center, big enough that it almost took the Bruins out of the game, but Stewart, as is his tendency, also made some terrible shot selections toward the end of the game that allowed the Bruins to continue the momentum that would eventually lead them to victory. The issue with Stewart is if he feels he isn't getting any shots, or he's frustrated with his misses, then he will start shooting more often and earlier in each Trojan possession and that leads to the poor shot selection that helped UCLA a few weeks ago.
The fourth starting perimeter player is freshman Dwight Lewis (6'5" 190 lbs.). Lewis is the "garbage man" in the Trojan starting five. He's expected to go after loose balls, play solid half-court defense and rebound. He does average 6.3 PPG but only averages 2.4 RPG. His shooting is spotty at best (40% form the floor), and he's only shooting 30% from behind the arc. He did hit some three-pointers in the first game, but that was more due to the Bruins not fighting through screens or switching on screens that gave him open looks. Josh Shipp will probably start out on Lewis and Shipp has played better defense the last two games. Still, Shipp is an "X" factor when it comes to defense, but you would think that for such a big game he would bring a supreme effort to the court on Wednesday.
The Bruins may have been able to outplay the Trojans in the first contest if not for the play of freshman (and I use that term loosely…he's 21 years-old) Taj Gibson (6'9" 210 lbs.). Gibson was able to block numerous Bruin shots and alter a few more. He has been a real find for Floyd this season, averaging 12.8 PPG, but his real worth comes on the boards where he is averaging a team-leading 8.5 RPG and 2 BPG. He is as athletic a big man as the Bruins will see in the regular season. The key to defending Gibson is to keep close to his body. Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya simply can't let Gibson create any separation because that's when his athleticism comes into play, especially on the offensive end. Against Stanford, Cardinal big man Brook Lopez was able to keep Gibson from gaining any separation on offense and it led to Gibson being blocked numerous times by the Stanford freshman. If Mata, in particular, can do roughly the same thing then he can somewhat neutralize Gibson.
At this point in the season the Trojans only go 7 players deep. The two main bench contributors are freshman point guard Daniel Hackett (6'5" 205 lbs.) and senior post Abdoulaye Ndiaye (6'11" 230 lbs.). Both tend to have their minutes shortened in close games, with the five starters averaging over 30 MPG apiece in tough contests. Hackett started the games that Pruitt had to sit, but his shooting (40% from the floor and 29% from behind the arc) and his defense have become a liability. Ndiaye is strictly a shot blocker. He is often out of position on defense and is still very raw offensively. If Floyd has to give Ndaiye a lot of minutes then the Trojans will be in trouble. It makes me wonder what has happened to sophomore RouSean Cromwell (6'10" 215 lbs.) who was clearly better than Ndaiye last season.
Okay, let's continue to keep it simple. The Bruins should start with Mata on Gibson, Luc on Young, Afflalo on Stewart, Shipp on Lewis and Collison on Pruitt. The Bruins should try to take advantage of USC's lack of size in the paint, much like they did against Oregon. Gibson is a far better defender and is more athletic than Oregon's lone post, Maarty Leunen, so Mata, et al, will have to be smarter with the ball in the paint. If the Bruins have to go smaller, then expect both Mike Roll and Westbrook to get more minutes with Luc switching onto Gibson and Afflalo sliding over to Young.
Expect USC to vary their defenses with zone and man, but I expect to see more man simply because the Bruins have been shooting the ball well from outside, especially at home. USC's defense has been very good this season, but it hasn't gotten markedly better from when they first faced UCLA. The Bruins, however, have shown clear improvement in what was already a very good defense. With the shot blocker in Gibson, the Bruins will have to look to get cheap points off breaks and turnovers. Those are the kinds of stats driven by intensity and expect the Bruins to bring just that to the game on Wednesday.
Simply put, UCLA is the better, deeper team. They are playing at home, and you get the sense that this is the kind of game that the Bruins live for. Finally, it appears that UCLA is beginning to round into the same kind of form they did about this time last season. They have more offensive wrinkles and their defense is starting to show 40 minutes of intense effort. It took a loss to USC last year to put the Bruins over the top. This time, a victory over the Trojans will give the Bruins L.A. bragging rights, a clear lead in the conference and show the rest of the nation that the Bruins are kicking it into post season form.