USC definitely becomes a better team against the Bruins. This is a team that's lost 8 other games this season, and albeit it to some pretty good teams, they definitely play "up" in their two games against UCLA.
So, the Bruins just have to get through it and tough it out. While many things are breaking down around them during a grinder game like this, it's just a matter of staying focused and aggressive possession by possession.
When it is a war type game, when game plans deteriorate, sometimes it does come down to a couple of simple factors.
The game ebbed and flowed. It's starting to sound tiresome, but it definitely ebbed for UCLA when the Bruins went stretches without Love touching the ball, and it flowed when he touched it. You can see that UCLA's offense definitely is doing everything it can to get him touches – in the block, at the high post, on the wing, above the three-point line – just about everywhere. But when USC went on two runs, one in the first and one in the second half, Love didn't touch the ball as much during those stretches.
UCLA's offense against USC's gimmicky triangle-and-two again struggled. That type of defense is designed to take away the middle and your two best perimeter scorers, and it will, by design, allow your worst scorers open looks. And it wants those guys to take shots. In this case, it's Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. UCLA obliged, and those two shot a combined 6 for 14, making only one of their four outside jumpers. It definitely isn't the fault of Mbah a Moute or Aboya; it's clear they were green-lighted to take those open 15 footers. Ben Howland appears to have confidence in them to make those shots, and they've shown – on occasion – they can. But in a game like this, when it's possession-by-possession, and you're up by single digits, you just can't give up one of your possessions to an Aboya or Mbah a Moute jumper, as UCLA did three times in the last ten minutes.
Then, throw in the shooting of Russell Westbrook, who USC also wants to take the outside shot – who went 2 for 11 – and you have three guys shooting a combined 8 for 25, or 32%.
The most worrisome aspect of UCLA's offense, though, is if you then look at UCLA's designated shooters, Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, it isn't much prettier. They shot a combined 7 for 18 (38%) and were a big goose egg for four from three-point territory.
As a team, UCLA shot an abysmal 33.9%.
Shipp is 0 for 15 from three in his last four games.
UCLA could certainly use the injured Mike Roll.
Luckily, again, Love was there. He made two three-pointers -- the only three-pointers UCLA made in the game.
It gives you the shivers to think what this offense would have looked like against USC's defense without Love. With Love, even when UCLA can't shoot well from the outside, if you get him the ball, something inside will be created. And when Love touches the ball, it's just not Love who executes well – the rest of the team seems to get in a very comfortable flow away from the ball, knowing there is potentially a great Love dime coming. Shipp moves well – and sneakily – without the ball, and when Love catches it outside on the wing, Shipp is very good at finding a seam.
On the defensive end, UCLA played just OK as a team. To their credit, they did hold USC to 46 points, but you'd have to credit USC probably just as much for taking poor shots throughout the game. As a defensive team, UCLA has some holes that are tending to linger – primarily its rotation out of hedging screens and post double teams. It's easily the poorest aspect of UCLA's defense right now, and it's giving opponents 5-10 unnecessarily lay-ups per game. In this one, Taj Gibson would get double-teamed, he'd kick it out and USC would rotate the ball to find the open Trojan under the basket – while two Bruins commonly stood a few feet away dumbfounded, as if this was the first time they ever had to rotate defensively out of a double team. More and more teams are taking apart UCLA's vaunted post double team this way, and if the Bruins can't rotate defensively, you'd rather have UCLA's post defender merely try to defend the opponent's post player one on one. After UCLA did get burned a couple of times, to its credit, it did tighten up on its rotations.
UCLA, as a team, allowed USC to shoot 46%, which isn't great defense.
But the difference defensively was what UCLA did against USC's two big guns, O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson. Mayo had his worst game as a Trojan, finishing with 4 points, on 2 of 8 shooting, while missing all four of his three-point attempts, and committing 10 turnovers. Jefferson also had just four points, also on 2 of 8 shooting, and four turnovers. Compare that production to UCLA's loss against USC a month ago, when Jefferson had 25 points and Mayo 16, and that's a difference of 33 points. There's your difference in the game right there.
Mayo was shut down for a couple of reasons. Westbrook did play good defense against him, trailing him actively through and around USC's screens, and not allowing Mayo much time or space when he did, in fact, touch the ball. The defensive key against Mayo is to not allow him space when he catches the ball, since he does have a quick release and he isn't that great taking defenders off the dribble. So, Westbrook had him bottled up for most of the game. But also, Mayo didn't work very hard to shake Westbrook. In the replays Fox showed of Westbrook trailing Mayo, it's readily clear that Mayo wasn't working that hard to get rid of him.
Another huge key was Mayo's sloppy, undisciplined play. Those 10 turnovers were huge, and only a part of all of Mayo's true turnovers; If you count bad, hurried shots as a turnover, you could probably add a few more. And you can probably count them with even more emphasis since some of them were in the waning minutes when USC needed a good possession and a good shot, and Mayo jacked it up off-balance.
Another factor was the return of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.. In his first game back after missing two weeks with a sprained ankle, he got a double-double (10/10) and was instrumental in the win. He must have had 5 weakside rebounds, and he, Aboya and James Keefe were key in tag-teaming Jefferson defensively to keep him under wraps.
Another underlying factor that determined the outcome of this game, too, is what primarily is the different environment between UCLA and USC basketball right now. USC definitely has some talent. The athleticism they have underneath with Gibson and Jefferson is truly the one frontline Love has faced that has given him problems. Gibson, who had a very good game (16/12 and five blocks), and Jefferson blocked three of Love's first four shots, and did it without getting a foul called. USC had a high-flying alley-oop by Jefferson. They have Mayo trying to make the flashy play or pulling up to take the dramatic, 25-foot three-pointer.
But they are also a band of individuals mostly playing for themselves. Tim Floyd is a very good coach, and it's a testament to how good that he can get all of these guys to play together and play that type of defense. Because, with the agendas and egos of Mayo and Jefferson, with any other coach, this team would be a complete mess.
USC has its one-and-done guy in Mayo, who, it is clear, isn't out to play for the team, but is out to get his points and be the guy who hits the big shot at the end of the game.
If you just substituted the injured guard Daniel Hackett, a non-NBA player who has come to learn his role at USC and do it well, for the NBA-bound Mayo in this game, USC probably wins it.
Then USC has its other one-and-done guy in Jefferson. While he might not be one-and-done in actuality, he certainly intends to be and, ever since he was at Lynwood High School (which seems to be a decade ago), has been a guy that has some great athleticism and raw talent, but doesn't have a clue how to play within a team concept.
USC is a group of mercenaries. It's evident in the fact that so many of them had issues in high school, hopping from school to school, going to east coast prep schools and not getting to college until much later. Freshman O.J. Mayo turned 20 in November. Freshman Davon Jefferson turned 21 in November. Freshman Mamadou Diarra turned 21 in August. Sophomore Taj Gibson turned 22 in June.
You can't allow anyone to ever call these guys "young." USC's starters collectively are one year older than UCLA's.
And then UCLA has its one-and-done guy in Love (who is 19, by the way), a player wh is truly a different breed of one-and-done guy, and is about winning. We won't try to whitewash the situation, and not recognize that there is an element in the UCLA program of guys being pre-occupied about going to the NBA, but it's still clear that UCLA's players are primarily about playing within a team concept and winning as a team. Heck, USC might have more overall talent that UCLA, but a big difference between 16-9 (USC's record) and 22-3 (UCLA's) is the character and motivation of its players.
When it does come down to a possession-by-possession game, and all of the coaching and schemes are breaking down, and a player is stripped down to what he really is, it definitely makes a difference.