Usually not much has changed since the first match-up between UCLA and its Pac-10 opponent just a few weeks before.
USC, however, has changed some. They've gone 5-1 since losing to UCLA January 11th, with that one loss being a close one at Washington.
They have, you could say, been the best team in the conference over the last month, and that's lifted them to 6-3 in conference and currently third, just one game behind UCLA and Washington at 7-2.
It's not coincidental that USC's improved play has come after the return of freshman forward Leonard Washington (6-7, 225). It's not that Washington is necessarily a big difference-maker, but adding that one more useable big body for the Trojans has really given them a boost in terms of rebounding, defense and physical play.
In the last five games since his return, Washington is averaging 18 minutes per game, and 5 points and 3.2 rebounds, which isn't huge. But if you put his muscled body in there next to 6-9 Taj Gibson, 6-4 Daniel Hackett, 6-5 Dwight Lewis and 6-6 DeMar DeRozan, it makes USC that much bigger and physical.
The other guy that has really come on and made an impact is senior Marcus Johnson (6-6, 195), the transfer from Connecticut. He wasn't eligible until right before Pac-10 play and it took a couple of weeks to get him in the swing of things. Lately he's been getting increased minutes (averaging 20 minutes off the bench per game), and has given the Trojans another scoring option, averaging 7.5 points in that time span. He came off the bench and scored two big baskets and fueled a scoring run that helped propel the Trojans to a close win at Washington State. He's a long athlete that also is a decent defender.
Apparently, though, Johnson could miss Wednesday's game with a sore shoulder.
Freshman DeMar DeRozan (6-7, 200) hit a bit of a frosh slump there for a couple of games, but led the team in scoring in the win over Cal Saturday, getting 19.
You would think, then, the added bodies and improved play from some supporting players would have provided some significant help in terms of USC's fatigue issue. If you remember, in UCLA's win over the Trojans at the Galen Center, USC was out-playing UCLA into the second half when they got completely gassed and fell off a cliff. But the bench hasn't provided any more rest in recent games since USC has been missing some guys here and there, mostly due to sickness. Dwight Lewis missed two games because of an ankle injury, Keith Wilkinson missed a game, and Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett were dragging due to pneumonia and the flu.
Even if they have everyone healthy, USC probably still will only go eight deep, with Wilkinson, Johnson and freshman Nikola Vucevic (6-10, 220) the three subs. And if Johnson can't play, well, USC is back to a rotation of seven. And they say that Washington is still not 100% since returning from his ankle injury.
Floyd just hasn't shown confidence in playing anyone else significant minutes. So, expect Gibson, Hackett, DeRozan and Lewis to play 35-plus minutes, and fatigue again to be a factor. USC has tended to play very inconsistently throughout the season (like we saw in the first match-up against UCLA), going through major lulls and scoring droughts in games, and it's probably a good bet to happen again.
UCLA has a clear advantage in terms of bench and depth. Whiile other coaches have been shortening their benches, UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland has been making a clear effort to expand his – or at least keep getting his bench consistent minutes. Not one UCLA starter played over 26 minutes Saturday against Stanford, and UCLA's bench logged a total of 83 minutes. Against Cal, no starter played over 31 minutes and the bench put in 62 minutes. The theory is that, first, your starters are better rested down the stretch of the season and, secondly, you develop the bench to be significant contributors.
That factor right there is the difference between UCLA and USC coming into the game Wednesday. You have to wonder how much energy the USC players will be able to sustain, playing 35+ minutes and recovering from, say, pneumonia, while UCLA's players are better rested.
Because if you take away the fatigue factor, USC is probably at least as good as UCLA. Defensively they've been excellent at times this season (39% field goal percentage defense, second in the conference), and looked very good against UCLA – again before they tired out. Floyd will throw a few junk defenses at you to keep you off-balance and it works. Gibson, who is averaging a double-double (15 and 10), if he can stay out of foul trouble, has the potential to dominate UCLA's frontcourt.
The game will come down to whether UCLA is, in fact, re-dedicated to playing superior defense, like they've been in the last two games. In the first match-up, Holiday did a good job on DeRozan, and a wave of defenders limited USC's leading scorer, Lewis (who averages 15.2 per game), to just 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting. USC is also a good rebounding team, and out-rebounding UCLA in the first meeting.
If UCLA can hit the boards and play defense with intensity, they'll wear down thin and fatigue-prone USC.
The Bruins re-doubled their efforts on defense and rebounding against Cal and Stanford, who we're realizing aren't very good. We'll see if they actually can keep doing it against a legitimately good team in USC.