UCLA comes into the game with a 4-0 conference record, good enough to put the Bruins alone in first place in the Pac-10 over Arizona State by ½ a game. Meanwhile, USC enters the contest with a 1-3 Pac-10 record and desperate to put their stamp on the season with a signature win. The game is the first look the Bruins will have of highly touted Trojan freshmen O.J. Mayo (6'4" 200 lbs.) and Davon Jefferson (6'8" 215 lbs.).
Washington State's three-point shooting barrage in the last 1:10 this past Saturday aside, UCLA played arguably their best two first halves of the season in putting Washington and Washington State away early in last week's sweep. Coupled with the game the week before against California, the Bruins appear to be rounding into shape as the Pac-10 schedule really gets going. Outside of Mike Roll, the Bruins come into the USC game about as healthy as they have been all year. That means that the Bruins really have no excuses to push their record to 5-0 in the conference. The game really will come down to whether or not the Bruins continue to do the things that made them successful the past three and ½ games (including the second half of the Stanford game), namely suffocating half-court defense, patient half-court offense, with a specific emphasis on getting Kevin Love the ball, and getting out on the semi-regular fast break with high-level finishes.
USC comes into the game after having split with the Washington schools last weekend. The Trojans blew out Washington following a heavy defeat at the hands of the Washington State Cougars. Before that, USC was swept in the Bay Area by Stanford and Cal. In the non-conference schedule, the Trojans have played a fairly tough schedule and loss to Kansas and Memphis in very close games. However, they also lost to Mercer, as well as suffering the three conference defeats. Arguably the best wins on the USC resume thus far are wins at South Carolina and at home against Oklahoma. The Trojans are a young team with talent that have the capability of beating a very good team, but up to this point in the season they are playing inconsistently on both ends of the floor. On defense, the Trojans are still trying to embrace Coach Tim Floyd's tough man-to-man half-court defensive philosophy, while on the offensive end they are having trouble with shot selection and interior play.
No one has typified the Trojans' season more than uber-hyped freshman Mayo. There is no questioning that he is a superlative talent. The question with Mayo has been whether or not he can mold his game to a team concept. He does lead the Trojans in scoring at 19.9 PPG and has a solid 4.8 RPG average. The problem with Mayo has been shot selection. He is only shooting 44% from the floor while attempting almost twice as many shots as his nearest teammate. The selection issue becomes more pronounced behind the arc where Mayo's 101 attempts are almost triple that of the next highest Trojan. There have been times that Mayo has essentially shot his team out of games. However, the worst thing the Bruins could do is allow that to lull them into a false sense of security. Mayo is a terrific offensive force and it is very possible that, if he starts out hot, he can carry the Trojans to a victory they most certainly would not have gained without his heroics. And while Mayo may come off as selfish because of his shot selection and the amount of shots he attempts, it is important to note that he averages over 3 APG. He does get his teammates involved. Trouble is that Mayo makes some high-risk decisions that have inflated his team-leading 63 turnover total.
Coach Ben Howland has a decision to make about whom to put on Mayo. He can go with the leadership and experience factor and put Josh Shipp on Mayo or Howland can opt to go with the team's best on-ball defender in Russell Westbrook. There are drawbacks to both. With Shipp, Howland might get indifferent defense, although that shouldn't be an issue as Shipp should be up for this game, while with Westbrook Howland runs the risk of the sophomore getting caught up in the individual match-up rather than the team defensive concept. Expect to see both players guarding Mayo at one time or another with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute thrown in occasionally for good measure.
Jefferson is another exceptional freshman for Floyd. However, even though Jefferson averages 11.8 PPG and 5.5 RPG and has shot well from inside (53% from the floor), he has had two major problems which have affected USC. The first and more publicized has been Jefferson's inability to consistently get out of Floyd's doghouse. Jefferson sat out USC's loss to Washington State last week and has been benched earlier in the year for not following Floyd's rules. As good as Jefferson is, he can't do anything to impact a game when he's in street clothes. The second problem is that Jefferson has been relying too much on one or two moves to get his shot off. This has led him to scoring some easy buckets early but becoming a turnover machine as a game wears on and opposing coaches and players have caught on to what he's trying to do. While Jefferson is an amazing athlete, his tendency to be a "black hole" when he gets the ball inside has proven to be a real problem. He has had some strong games, like against Kansas when he scored 17 points against some pretty stiff competition. But Kansas has a defensive system that relies on the quickness and length of its players, something that plays to Jefferson's strengths. Against more physical defenders, Jefferson has struggled and he will now face both Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya.
With the two freshmen taking most of the shots, the one returning Trojan that has suffered the most on the offensive end has been sophomore forward Taj Gibson (6'9" 225 lbs.). Gibson's scoring has dropped to 9.4 PPG after averaging over 13 PPG last season. Gibson is still rebounding at a high level, averaging a team-leading 8 RPG, so he is still working hard on the glass and defensively, where he leads the team with 56 PFs, but many of them are because he is coming to help on players that have gotten around his teammates.
While many have been critical of Gibson's game in the past, he has shown this year that he plays with passion and intensity. But watching several Trojan games this year, there appears to be a bit of frustration setting in with Gibson as he watches the freshmen jack up shot after shot without him seeing the ball while Gibson is then asked to bail the team out on the defensive end. The battle between Love and Gibson will bear watching. For all the success that Love has had this season, and especially the past few games, Gibson presents the most athletic opponent that Love has yet seen. The good news for the Bruins is that Gibson is not a threat outside of about 8-10 feet, so Love can play off of him, and Gibson is very foul prone. If it's one thing that Love has shown this season, it's that he knows how to draw fouls.
The final two starters for Floyd might be the two most important. Sophomores Daniel Hackett (6'5" 205 lbs.) and Dwight Lewis, (6'5" 215 lbs.) have developed into the unsung leaders of the Trojans. Hackett naturally has slid into that role as he has a very competitive personality and he's the team's point guard. Although the Trojans can get out of control on the offensive end at times, it was much worse when Hackett was out at the beginning of the season. That's when USC lost to Mercer. Hackett averages 10.7 PPG and leads the team with 55 assists against only 34 turnovers. He is also one of the team's consistent three-point threats, averaging 43% from behind the arc. Hackett will be a bit of a match-up problem for Darren Collison. Collison has the quickness advantage, but Hackett proved last season that he can use his size advantage to bother Collison. Hackett gets himself into trouble when he tries to do too much, be the star himself, and doesn't recognize his role, probably another by-product of Mayo's presence on the team.
Lewis is the "glue" of the Trojans. He quietly goes about his business but he is very efficient. He averages 11.1 PPG and is able to hit both outside and inside. His real value to the team is his willingness to play defense, subvert his game for the benefit of the team and do little things like diving after loose balls. Whoever between Westbrook and Shipp that isn't guarding Mayo will be on Lewis.
There are three players that Floyd primarily uses off the bench. In the frontcourt Floyd utilizes juniors RouSean Cromwell (6'11" 225 lbs.) and Keith Wilkinson (6'10" 225 lbs.). Both are essentially there to give Gibson and Jefferson a rest. Cromwell is very athletic but raw. His freshman year was going very well last season and he appeared to be someone that would have a big impact on the Pac-10 for the foreseeable future until he suffered an injury. He hasn't been the same since. Wilkinson is more of a positional player who relies on his basketball IQ to make him successful. If either sees the floor for more than 12-13 minutes then that means that either Gibson or Jefferson is in foul trouble.
In the backcourt, Floyd relies on quick freshman combo guard Angelo Johnson (5'11" 180 lbs.). Johnson may be the crucial player in the game if Floyd decides that the only way to win is to go small. Johnson is a solid three-point shooter, averaging 36% from behind the arc, and is very quick in getting to the basket. He's the kind of player that has given Collison trouble so far this season. He's not as good as D.J. Augustin of Texas, but he is individually better than both Stanford's Mitch Johnson and Cal's Jeremy Randle.
On paper, the Bruins should win this game handily. They play much better team defense and they have a more team-oriented approach on offense. However, because it's a rivalry game and because Mayo's ability to suddenly score 30+ can't be discounted, the game will be closer than expected. Plus, with UCLA already limited to an eight-man rotation, the possibility that Mbah a Moute might not be 100%, suffering a groin strain early this week, could be a factor. Add to this the fact that Floyd is an excellent game planner. Floyd went to a Triangle-and-2 gimmick defense against Memphis and it really bothered the Tigers. Expect Floyd to try something similar against UCLA. Floyd will also scrap his man-to-man defensive philosophy in favor of a zone if it will help the Trojans win. The Bruins should expect to see lots of zone.
Howland is the better coach at in-game adjustments, so anything that Floyd throws at the Bruins, Howland should have an answer for. Howland, also, hasn't lost many games at UCLA when he's had a long time to prepare, and he's had a week to get ready for USC. The question is whether or not the Bruins will bring the same fire and defensive intensity they brought in the first half of both games last weekend or if they will try to coast, believing that they are simply better than the Trojans. Make no mistake; the Trojans are good enough to win this game. They almost beat Kansas and Memphis, but the Jayhawks played without Sherron Collins and Memphis seemingly missed more free throws than Lorenzo Mata-Real missed last season. It will be close, but USC lost to Kansas and they lost to Memphis. They will lose to UCLA.