Pac-10 Tourney Semi-Final: USC

It's the rubber game of the three games between UCLA and USC this season in the semi-final of the Pac-10 Tournament tonight. We've done all the Xs and Os analyses into the ground; With USC such a tough match-up for UCLA, this game will come down to who's tired and who wants it more ...

Be careful what you wish for...or so the saying goes.

It can certainly be applied to the California Golden Bears after yesterday. Cal had come into yesterday's game with UCLA stating publicly that they wanted another shot at the Bruins after last weekend's controversial finish in Pauley Pavilion. Cal got what it wanted and the Bruins put forth a statement in destroying the Bears by 22 in a game that wasn't as near as close as the final score. It was perhaps UCLA's most complete game since dismantling Arizona roughly one month ago. But there is no rest for the weary and the Bruins must turn around and face USC today in the Pac-10 semi-finals.

Southern Cal is coming off of a very tough quarterfinal game against Arizona State, a game that ended in controversy. Without getting into the specifics, USC benefited from a call that was, in reality, no different from the one that the Bruins benefited from against Stanford last week. In both cases there were fouls that shouldn't have been called considering the situations but, at best, both the teams that benefited from the call still had work to do. For UCLA, the point of all this wasn't the call, it was the fact that USC had to play a tight game that came down to the last possession for the Sun Devils before USC felt secure.

Contrast this with UCLA's victory that was virtually assured at the half when the Bruins went into the locker room up by 14. That, coupled with UCLA's start to the second half, essentially allowed Coach Ben Howland to "rest" his key players heading into today's contest. This is where the game may turn, because all other things being equal, USC may be UCLA's toughest match-up in the conference.

UCLA's Russell Westbrook played 34 minutes yesterday, tops among UCLA's key players. Josh Shipp played 31 and Darren Collison 30, while Luc Richard Mbah a Moute played 28 and Kevin Love only played 19 because of foul trouble. Any coach will tell you that having a rested line-up in a 24-hour turnaround is important and the Bruins certainly didn't exert themselves to the limit. The Trojans, on the other hand, had three starters play more than 35 minutes, with O.J. Mayo playing all 40. It wasn't just the total number of minutes but the intensity of those minutes. The Bruins focused early which allowed them to coast knowing they would get USC today. USC had to play with heightened urgency for all of their game against ASU. Their legs should be more tired; their psyches should be a bit more worn.

The weariness factor will be enhanced by the type of defense that each team will play. Part of USC's problem yesterday was that ASU played a zone defense that really bothered the Trojans. While USC won't see zone today, they may see something far more intimidating: a UCLA defense that is focused and intense. The defense played by the Bruins yesterday was one of their two or three best performances of the year. They played with purpose and absolute focus. The Bruins were still late on some rotations, but their collective recovery speed was outstanding, almost never allowing the Bears a clean look at the basket. If UCLA brings that kind of effort on the defensive end today, not to mention the rebounding effort when it counted, then USC will have every bit as much difficulty scoring as they did yesterday against ASU.

Even if USC goes with the triangle-and-two that has stymied the Bruins over two games so far this year, the Bruins shouldn't go through the kind of offensive drought that ASU suffered through yesterday. Really, if the Sun Devils could have shot even 30% from the floor over the last 9 minutes or so yesterday then the Bruins would be playing the Sun Devils today. UCLA's offense is generally better than anything ASU can offer because UCLA has more options. However, if UCLA brings the offense that they showed against Cal, then USC will be in trouble. UCLA was crisp, unselfish and had many open looks (which is a big reason for the inordinate amount of made three-pointers). The guess is that Howland is going to get Westbrook and Collison to do everything they can to drive through the USC seams in their zone and then look for the kick-out passes like they did yesterday. Even Luc looked very focused yesterday, taking the ball to the basket instead of settling for the mid-range jumper (although he did knock down one of the two he took). It was clear that he was taking advantage of his unique skill set. He will have to do that today if the Trojans, as they did earlier this season, attempt to take away UCLA's guards and Love.

So really, it comes down to the usual: Which UCLA team will show up? The Bruins that people saw yesterday will win fairly easily if they are the ones who show up at the Staples Center Friday. The other Bruins? No, not so much.

The factors, however, seem to be working in UCLA's favor. The Trojans should be more fatigued and a defensive effort that is anything close to what UCLA displayed yesterday will wear down the Trojans quickly. If the Bruins show anything like yesterday's precision on offense then that, too, will wear down USC. The Trojans will have to be getting through a lot of well-set screens (something the Bruins did very well yesterday for the first time in a while) and really move laterally to deal with UCLA's passing. That will tire out anyone, let alone a team coming off of what the Trojans had to play through Thursday.

The last factor is the mindset that each team should have. The Trojans will be ready since the opponent is UCLA, but in all reality they have nothing to play for other than maybe a higher seed in the NCAAs. The Bruins, however, look really angry. If the Bruins bring that same look today, they should be playing tomorrow in the title game.

UCLA 68
USC 60


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