The semi-final game will be the third meeting between the L.A, schools, with the Bruins having won both of the regular season contests. The first game, the third of the 2008-2009 Pac-10 season, was a nail biter that saw the Bruins come back from a healthy deficit late in the second half. The second game was the third in the four-game stretch that most fans believe was the Bruins' best stretch of basketball of the year. UCLA ran USC off the court in the first half of that game and coasted in the second half. USC defeated California in their Pac-10 quarterfinal last night and played some of their best ball of the year in defeating the Bears by four. UCLA surprisingly beat up Washington State in their quarterfinal by 11 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score. So, was last night an aberration by the Bruins, or are they collectively and individually going to "show up" on the defensive side of the court like they did against the Cougars?
In the Washington State preview I wrote that UCLA's fortunes depended on which Bruin team would show up, more specifically whether Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday were ready to defensively step up to the challenge of Wazzu's Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson. Collison, with help from Jerime Anderson, did a nice job on Rochestie (although he still got in the paint a bit more than I'd like), holding him to 8 points, while Holiday absolutely destroyed Thompson, holding him to 5 points and forcing him into 4 turnovers. The Cougar guards combined to shoot 3-22 from the floor. That's 14%. Let me write that again; that's 14% from the floor! That's where the game was won. Collison and Holiday, with some help from Mike Roll, Malcolm Lee and Anderson, clearly met the challenge last night.
Defensive rotation was also critical to UCLA's success last night. While Cougar post Aron Baynes did score 22 points, it was clear that Coach Ben Howland was relatively okay with that as it was clear that he and the Bruins knew that Baynes couldn't beat them the way the Cougar backcourt did a few weeks ago at Pauley. The defensive rotation for the Bruins last night was less about stopping Baynes and more about forcing Wazzu's perimeter players to take tough shots or make poor decisions/passes. Mission accomplished as UCLA forced Wazzu to shoot only 30% from the floor, including only 21% in the first half when the game was decided. Further, UCLA forced only 10 turnovers but they were at critical times, allowing UCLA to go on a first half 19-0 run that essentially won the game.
So, this is a game preview, right? So why review last night's game so closely? Because how well the Bruins played on defense last night makes is a vivid illustration the kind of focus and effort they'll have to bring tonight against the Trojans.
In defeating Cal last night, the Trojans did some things very well, particularly rebounding. They held a 51-25 rebounding advantage against the Bears, held Cal to 43% shooting and made 80% of their free throws…and still only won when junior guard Daniel Hackett (6'5" 215 lbs.) made 4 free throws in the last few seconds after a poor play by Cal's Jerome Randle. USC played perhaps the best they can play, while Cal was pretty mediocre and USC didn't run away with the game. Part of the reason was that USC's starting five simply looks gassed. Not just last night, but it seems as if the weight of playing so many minutes has caught up to them this season. Last night was no different. Hackett played all 40 minutes while junior wing Dwight Lewis (6'5" 215 lbs.) played 37, freshman Demar DeRozan played 35 (and scored 17 points), junior post Taj Gibson played 34 (and went for 21 points and 16 boards), and sophomore wing Marcus Simmons played 32. The USC bench combined for only 22 out of 200 possible floor minutes. This looks like a tired team.
USC is certainly going to get up for tonight's tilt and they present the Bruins with a different set of concerns than did Wazzu. First is Gibson, who will test Alfred Aboya and Drew Gordon with his quickness and athleticism. If the two Bruins can essentially slow down Gibson on the boards then UCLA will probably win by double digits. Aboya looked a bit "off" at times last night (actually, since his parents were in tow), but much of that can be attributed to the fact that he was playing an opponent in Baynes that has so much more girth than the Bruin senior.
Coach Tim Floyd has used several gimmick defenses over the years to try and win games against the Bruins, most notably the Triangle-and-2, but Howland has probably seen them all by now. The Triangle-and-2 defense is much less effective against this year's Bruins because of UCLA's ability to put several good shooters on the floor at once, thus completely negating the zone. The Trojans do present a size challenge in the backcourt as both Lewis and Hackett are bigger than their UCLA counterparts. But all of UCLA's backcourt players with the exception of Mike Roll are so much quicker than the USC duo and they have the added advantage of being able to rest in games. In fact you never got the sense that Collison exerted too much effort after the first 12 minutes of the game last night simply because he didn't have to, thus saving energy for tonight.
Offensively the Bruins are a much better team when they penetrate and last night was no exception. They did a good job of breaking down Washington State's defense, which is hard to do consistently, and had an attacking mentality for much of the game. In particular I was impressed to see James Keefe taking the ball to the rack, and although he missed, he played 16 very good minutes last night and showed an aggressiveness that I have seen slowly building for the past two weeks. It seemed to be prevalent throughout the Bruin roster last night.
USC should have an advantage on the boards, and they'd better because that is the only area where they have a natural advantage against the Bruins. If UCLA can at least stay close in the rebounding department then that means they are probably winning the game. If UCLA shows the same mentality and focus on the defensive end as they did last night, particularly the backcourt players, then they should win fairly handily. But, as is usual, it depends on which UCLA team shows up.
Expect the game to be close for a while but UCLA should pull away in the last 10 minutes of the second half as their depth and USC's inevitable fatigue really take effect. With all the upsets around the country yesterday the Bruins know that they have a legitimate shot at a #3 seed if they win the Pac-10 Tournament. But then it seemed like they were on a mission already when they beat Wazzu.