USC is 10-4 on the season, and 1-1 in the Pac-10, having beaten Oregon decisively last Friday and then getting upset by Oregon State Sunday.
The Trojans are good, but it's uncertain just how good (kind of like the Bruins), given the fact that they really haven't beaten anyone of substance yet. Their biggest win was a close one against an average Georgia Tech team who, you might remember, had to go to overtime to beat Mercer, a team UCLA beat pretty handily.
USC does present some interesting match-ups for the Bruins – interesting from both perspectives, in which USC might have an advantage or the Bruins might.
The one position where USC probably does have an advantage is at center, with junior Taj Gibson (6-9, 225). Gibson could be one of the toughest low-post scoring threats in the country, with excellent quickness in the post, great scoring touch around the basket and springy hops. He's averaging a double-double on the season, 15.4 points and 10.6 rebounds, the kind of stats which get you put on the Pac-10 first team at the end of the season. Interesting, though, that he's struggled to rebound in his first two Pac-10 games, only getting 6 and 4 boards against Oregon and Oregon State, while averaging 32.5 minutes in those two games. The best defense against Gibson is to get him rattled by being physical with him, which leads him to bad decisions and fouls. Just about every USC opponent intends to try to get Gibson in foul trouble, because if you take him off the floor the Trojans become a very one-dimensional, perimeter-oriented team, without really anyone to step in for him.
After losing O.J. Majo to the NBA, USC needed someone to emerge and pick up the scoring slack, and that has come from junior wing Dwight Lewis (6-5, 215). Lewis was probably always capable of scoring 16 points per game, but just didn't touch the ball much with Majo and Davon Jefferson last season. Lewis can score just about any way, shooting threes (41%), driving to the hoop and finishing, or with a soft mid-range jumper. He'll also convert his free throws, shooting 75% from the line. He can be sloppy however, over-penetrating and jumping to pass often, which has led him to 35 turnovers against just 21 assists on the season.
USC's starting five is similar in many ways to UCLA's five. They have a veteran center and guard, and then start an elite freshman at the other wing position – that being DeMar DeRozan (6-6, 200). DeRozan came to USC with a good amount of hype, and much of it was well-deserved. He is a spectacular leaper, which makes him good for some highlight footage, but so far his freshman season hasn't been as spectacular as many projected. While DeRozan has some considerable hops, he's not necessarily quick laterally – being a bit stiff actually – and his handle needs to improve. So, D-1 defenders have been getting up in him and pressuring him, forcing him to put the ball on the floor and take away his outside shot. In high school he had a good stationary jumper, but he hasn't found the range in college – having yet to make a three-pointer in his first fourteen games (0 for 14). He's a good rebounder, with that jumping ability (5 per game), but with his lack of great lateral quickness just an average defender.
Like UCLA, USC also has a veteran point guard in junior Daniel Hackett (6-5, 205), who is averaging 10.9 points per game. Hackett has good skills – a very nice lefty shooting touch from the outside (30% from three), and is an exceptional passer (6 per game). Hackett, however, has some weaknesses in his game, mostly when he tries to do too much given his ability. When Hackett plays his role, he's a key part, but when he tries to create shots to win the game, or make that too-flashy pass, he can be detrimental, averaging over 4 turnovers per contest. He also has a bit of punk attitude that has tended to define the Trojans while he's been at USC.
The fifth starter has been freshman Leonard Washington (6-6, 225) for most of the season, but he's sat out the last three games with a high-ankle sprain and is listed as "doubtful" for Sunday. Of course, UCLA is suspicious and thinks he'll play. Washington is a similar type to Oregon's Joevan Catron – well-built, compact and strong – but without the savvy or experience. He's a very tough rebounder, averaging 6 per game in just 20 minutes.
Without Washington, USC has gone to senior Keith Wilkinson (6-10, 225), who is a guy who doesn't do much, but also doesn't make many mistakes. USC Head Coach Tim Floyd has complete confidence in Wilkinson because of his reliability, doing the small things – like setting screens – correctly. He played all 45 minutes in the overtime loss to Oregon State. He can shoot from the outside if left open.
USC is unlike UCLA, however, in their lack of viable depth. Against Oregon State. Floyd used just seven players. Against Oregon, only seven players played significant minutes, with a few others getting blow-out garbage minutes.
The two guys being used off the bench also bear a unique connection to UCLA: senior Marcus Johnson (6-6, 195) bears the name of a UCLA great, albeit spelled incorrectly, and USC has its own "Nikola" in freshman Nikola Vucevic (6-10, 220). Johnson, the transfer from Connecticut, is a long, up-and-down athlete with an erratic, undisciplined game. Getting pretty hyped by national scouts out of high school because of his jumping ability, Johnson's skill have never really developed, but he gives the Trojans some length and solid rebounding from the three spot off the bench.
Vucevic is a slender, fairly soft forward who doesn't touch the ball much and won't look to shoot much just yet, but Floyd likes his height for defensive match-ups.
USC does expect the return of sophomore wing Marcus Simmons (6-6, 220) from an injury, which will help their bench. Simmons hasn't yet been able to get in the flow since coming to USC, being hindered most of last season due to injury.
Under Floyd, USC has been a very good defensive team, and they are again this year. In fact, without the scoring punch from last season, they rely heavily on their defense to get them through games, holding opponents to just 39% shooting from the field. Floyd will throw any number of defenses at you – from a pressure man, to many different zones, like a 2-3 or a triangle-and-two. He'll switch them up throughout a game to keep an opposing team off-balance on offense, and it generally works. They like to pressure the ball in both their man and zone defenses, knowing that if someone gets past them on the dribble drive there is Gibson, one of the best shotblockers in the country, waiting for him in the paint.
USC is all about size and length, with their backcourt starters going 6-5, 6-5 and 6-7, as opposed to UCLA's Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday and Josh Shipp, who are 6-0, 6-3 and 6-4. It makes the Trojans more difficult to shoot over, certainly, but what they gain in height they definitely lose in quickness, with the Bruin guards having too much quickness for Hackett and Lewis. Josh Shipp should even be able to handle DeRozan, doing better against big, stronger threes than quicker ones, especially since it takes DeRozan a while to get his shot off.
UCLA, really, matches up well against USC this season, as opposed to recent seasons where USC presented more problems than advantages for the Bruins. Yes, Gibson is a handful, but Alfred Aboya is the best type of player to defend him, one who can match his quickness. USC overall doesn't have as potent an offense as they've had in recent years, and that's good for UCLA, which doesn't have (at least yet this season) near as good a defense.
It definitely is going to be interesting to watch UCLA's explosive offense go up against USC stifling defense.
UCLA, too, has much more depth than the Trojans, especially on the front line. Watch for UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland to use that depth to try to tire the Trojans and also get Gibson into foul trouble.
USC is stinging, coming off the upset loss at Oregon State, and having a whole week to stew on it. Floyd has really used it as a wake-up call, so there isn't much chance UCLA will catch the Trojans napping.
USC, in the past, never really got any kind of home-court advantage, but they do now with the Galen Center actually drawing about 4,000 Trojan fans per game now, instead of the few hundred they used to get at the Sports Arena. Expect Galen to be at its 10,000-seat capacity Sunday night.
With the way UCLA's Collison has been playing, he presents a huge advantage for the Bruins against the Trojans. Hackett can't stay with him one-on-one, and Floyd's junk zone defenses probably won't stop him. Watch for Collison to be the winning advantage.
The Bruins are 3-2 at USC under Howland, with the games being decided by an average of 3.6 points. It's going to be a ball burner.