The Bruins are returning from a split with the Washington schools, including a 71-61 loss to the University of Washington this past Sunday. The Trojans, on the other hand, are also coming home off a Pacific Northwest split, having defeated the Huskies but losing quite handily to Washington State. The state of both teams is in question, primarily because of injuries, but while the Bruins more than likely will get one of their most important players back for the contest, USC appears to have been dealt a significant injury blow.
While UCLA fans have gotten carried away with the Bruins loss against Washington, a team that the Bruins should have beaten, remember that the Bruins are in exactly the same position they were in before the game; that is, they are still in first place in the Pac-10 (in fact, in improved shape since Stanford lost to ASU in overtime Thursday), they are still in line for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and they still have some difficult games to play. Really, the only thing that has changed for UCLA is that now their margin for error is slimmer than it was at this time last week.
The Bruins hope to receive good news by game time with the return of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. While the Bruins have been bitten by the injury bug several times this year, one can argue that any injury to Mbah a Moute is the most significant. He is the team's best defender for opposing forwards and his ability to rebound and get some easy baskets off mismatches are sorely missed when he's not in the lineup. If last weekend proved anything, it's that the Bruins played a very good game in defeating Wazzu without Mbah a Moute. Against Washington, as was the case earlier in the year against USC in the game at Pauley, the loss of Mbah a Moute affected the outcome of the game. In the case of the USC game, freshman forward Davon Jefferson was able to go off without Mbah a Moute's athleticism to hold him in check. Against the Huskies, Washington was able to gather in numerous offensive boards that would not normally have been available had Mbah a Moute played. One can easily argue that with a healthy Mbah a Moute, UCLA doesn't lose either game.
On the flip side, USC has learned that starting point guard, sophomore Daniel Hackett, is out for the game and may be out for the season because of a stress fracture in one of his lower vertebrae. The young man has essentially broken his back. His loss has the possibility of being just as devastating to the Trojans as the loss of Mbah a Moute has been to the Bruins. Hackett is the glue that has held the Trojans together over the course of the season. He's a hard-nosed young man that plays with passion, but also with the personality of a leader. He's about the only Trojan that will challenge super-frosh O.J. Mayo when Mayo's game is hurting the team…and Mayo listens to him (at least by not ignoring him). Hackett's loss really stretches an already thin Trojan backcourt to the limit. Assuming freshman Angelo Johnson starts in Hackett's place, the Trojans and Coach Tim Floyd will start three freshmen and two sophomores. To get a fair assessment on Hackett's value to the team, remember this: Without Hackett, the Trojans lost to Mercer.
This game is really going to come down to contrasting styles. In the first game a month ago at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins did a simply horrible job of defending USC in the halfcourt. Conversely, USC's gimmick, triangle-and-two defense gave the Bruins fits. The Bruins need to do a better job of playing smart offense as their decision-making in the first game led to a lot of three-point shots and shots that went up without regard to time and score. In short, the Bruins played a "stupid" game, one without fire, conviction or purpose. It was as if they were too fired up, or they simply thought they could show up and win.
On offense, the Bruins should expect to see the triangle-and-two again, since they really couldn't solve it in the first meeting. Regardless of who's playing the two "man" positions, Floyd and the Trojans will put Jefferson and sophomore post Taj Gibson down on the bottom of the triangle. Typically, at the point of the triangle, you want someone who has length and pretty good lateral quickness. That may be Mayo, as it will leave sophomore Dwight Lewis and Johnson to play the man spots. Lewis is a step too slow to properly play the point and Johnson is just too small, at 5'11". USC will have to switch off the players in the "man" spots, though, because the nature of the defense is for the two players in "man" to get tired. The Bruins have got to take advantage of that, whether it means getting through the seams that will be created by Lewis' lack of quickness, or shooting over or muscling Johnson. If Floyd has to go to his bench, he'll probably be looking at sophomore walk-on Ryan Wetherell as the player to spell the guards. If any of the Trojan starters get into foul trouble, then the prospects for a Trojan victory are slim.
When attacking a defense like the triangle-and-two, a team should usually run their "man" offense, with screens being set for the two players being defended along the baseline. This should open up Kevin Love to come off screens and get quite a few one-on-one match-ups in the low post. But the Bruins need to be more patient in their halfcourt sets so that they get good looks, and, more importantly, Love get as many touches as possible. Because of the nature of the defense, there should be a lot of open looks in the 12-15 foot range. UCLA, particularly Russell Westbrook must take advantage of these openings in the zone. Westbrook was entirely too fired up the last time these teams met and hopefully he's learned from the experience.
On defense, the Bruins were sliced up and out-hustled by the Trojans in two key areas. First, the Trojans were able to spread the floor on the Bruins, thus making it harder for UCLA to bring any help once the ball got into the paint, whether because of dribble penetration or because of passes down low. Darren Collison and Westbrook have got to do a better job of keeping their men in front of them. Collison will almost certainly guard Johnson, while Westbrook will be on Mayo. Josh Shipp will take Lewis, leaving Jefferson for Mbah a Moute and Gibson for Love. The Jefferson/Mbah a Moute match-up is especially critical as the Trojan freshman torched UCLA with his athleticism and weakside rebounding in the first meeting with Mbah a Moute.
Weakside rebounding is the second area where the Trojans beat up on the Bruins last month. It wasn't only Jefferson that was able to take advantage of Mbah a Moute's absence as the Trojans scored numerous put-backs and had more than enough multiple shot possessions to greatly anger UCLA Coach Ben Howland. By allowing Alfred Aboya and James Keefe to come off the bench, the Bruins should have a significant reserve advantage over the Trojans, who should be able to effectively count on only junior posts RouSean Cromwell, Keith Wilkinson and Wetherell as bench players.
The fact that the game is at the Galen Center should count for little as this is a rivalry game and both teams tend to play well on the other's home court.
There will be three keys to this game. The first is how the Bruins handle the triangle-and-two defense, where a player of Mbah a Moute's ability should be able to find some scoring chances. The second will be how Mbah a Moute matches up specifically with Jefferson. Mbah a Moute simply can't let Jefferson do what he did the last time these two teams met. Finally, how USC handles the loss of Hackett will be the most important aspect of the game. Last weekend in the Palouse, the Trojans, with an obviously hurting Hackett, did not play well and were run off the floor. Regardless of what happens with the other keys, the Hackett dilemma should dictate the outcome of the game. USC just isn't nearly as good a team without him in the lineup. All things being equal, if Mbah a Moute returns, as we suspect, and with the absence of Hackett, the Bruins should gain revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of the Trojans. To put Hackett's loss in further perspective, without him the Trojans can only look to the Oregon State game as the only sure win left on their schedule.