In case anyone forgot, the Bruins do have a basketball game this Saturday, and it is a pretty big one.
Unless you've been living under a rock the past week then you know about the goings on in South Central with regard to USC hiring a new football coach, putting their men's basketball program on probation and facing the very real possibility of major NCAA sanctions for both the football and men's basketball programs.
That's off the field and off the court. On the court, USC gets on the 10 Freeway and comes west to Pauley Pavilion Saturday.
The Bruins are coming off a disappointing split in the Bay Area last weekend. I say "disappointing" because the Bruins won the more difficult of the two games when they defeated California, but then pulled an all-too-expected brain cramp against Stanford and lost a game they clearly should have won. The Bruins beat Cal because they played with focus and intensity. They lost at Stanford because they lacked both (22 turnovers? Really???). The two Bay Area games were a microcosm of the Bruins' season: one good game, one bad game, with the good one usually coming when they have time to prepare. The Bruins didn't play this Thursday so the USC game is essentially the "Thursday" game for this week.
The Trojans, frankly, have overachieved this season, with wins over Tennessee and UNLV, but they were swept last weekend at Berkley and Palo Alto. It's not that the Trojans played poorly, but they certainly didn't play smart basketball and that may be because teams are starting to figure them out as well as not take them for granted, which some opponents clearly did earlier in the season. USC and Coach Kevin O'Neill also found out last week that the university was imposing its own sanctions on the basketball program because of the improper benefits given to former player O.J. Mayo reportedly by former coach Tim Floyd, which, among other things, bans them from post-season play. To be blunt, it was a rough week for the Trojan basketball team and it got worse this week with the general meltdown going on around Heritage Hall. More on that in a bit, but for now remember that USC has athletes and UCLA has had a lot of trouble with athletic teams this season.
O'Neill came into the USC job with a roster that was full of question marks, but he has seen many questions answered because of the leadership and play of his three seniors, guard Dwight Lewis (6'5" 215 lbs.), Marcus Johnson (6'6" 210 lbs.) and transfer Mike Gerrity (6'1" 180 lbs.). Lewis is a returning four-year starter for the Trojans and he is clearly the go-to-guy, although he hasn't always been comfortable in that role. It should be noted that he has had some huge games against UCLA over the years and generally when he's played well and scored the Trojans have defeated the Bruins. He is USC's leading scorer at 13.2 PPG but he hasn't been doing much else. He averages almost two turnovers for every assist he has and he is rebounding far worse than he has in past years. He has been playing good defense for the Trojans and is the one player that O'Neill will count on not to have a poor game at both ends of the floor. If Coach Ben Howland does decide to play man defense then most assuredly he will match up Malcolm Lee on Lewis. Although Lee didn't have the best statistical weekend at Cal and Stanford (and remember he cramped up at the end of the Cal game), his defense was still pretty darn good. He essentially shut down Cal's Jerome Randle and for the most part was able to stop Stanford's Landry Fields (although Lee had issues guarding Jeremy Green). Lewis is more like Fields than Randle and that alone makes it more difficult for Lee. Although Lee is longer than Lewis, the USC senior is stronger and may try and back Lee down and negate Lee's length. The difference between Lewis and Fields is that Fields has Green as his accomplice; Lewis really doesn't have a teammate with that kind of firepower.
Johnson has been a career back-up for the Trojans but he has become the "glue guy" in many respects. He is doing nothing great but doing many things well. He is scoring at 9.4 PPG, rebounding at 4.9 RPG and he leads the team in steals. He is long enough that when USC plays man defense he will be able to bother Lee and possibly shut down Mike Roll. If Lee doesn't guard Lewis then he will most certainly be placed on Johnson, but expect Roll and even Tyler Honeycutt to guard Lewis with Honeycutt providing Johnson with a difficult match-up.
Gerrity, the transfer from Charlotte, really is the ‘X' factor for the Trojans. Before he became eligible the Trojans were a mess on the court because they didn't have anyone that could remotely run the point at a necessary level. Gerrity has provided stability and a player who has the ability to get the ball to teammates in scoring positions. He is averaging 10.3 PPG and 3.1 APG. He's not a great shooter (41% from the floor this season), but that's not his job. The Trojans are clearly more stable and more fluid on offense with him on the floor. However, over the past weekend Gerrity seemed to be "found out" by both Bay Area schools. They forced Gerrity into some uncharacteristic turnovers, especially at crucial times, and Cal in particular seemed to get into his head. He's deceptively quick, although not a superior athlete and he will give Jerime Anderson all he can handle because of his guile. However, the Bruins can take advantage of him when he's playing defense. I stated before the Lee should be on Lewis, but what about when Anderson isn't on the floor? Lee then could/should be used to guard Gerrity. If Gerrity is off his game or taken out of his game then the Trojans are a mess. This may be the key match-up of the game -- Gerrity versus UCLA's defense.
USC has a very good rebounding tandem in junior Alex Stepheson (6'9" 235 lbs.), the North Carolina transfer who almost became a Bruin, and sophomore Nikola Vucevic (6'10" 220 lbs.), who may be the most improved player in the Pac-10 up until this point in the season. Between the two of them they average almost 18 RPG and 3 BPG. They are the number 2 and 3 scorers on the squad, combining for more than 21 PPG and they collectively shoot over 50% from the floor. They do have a significant weakness, though; Vucevic shoots free throws in the 65% region while Stepheson's free-throw shooting would be bad on this year's version of the Bruins. Obviously they will be a match-up problem for the Bruins when UCLA is on defense. Reeves Nelson is game but rather small compared to the two Trojans. James Keefe has the experience and strength, and perhaps a physical game down low will help raise Keefe's fragile confidence. Brendan Lane is smart and game, too, but he is at a serious weight disadvantage against both opponents. Don't get me started on how Nikola Dragovic would defend either USC post. However, the Bruins would have some advantages over the USC tandem when UCLA is on offense. Dragovic's ability to hit the outside shot, and to a lesser extent the outside shooting ability of Lane and Keefe, too, will cause one or both of the Trojan big men to have to come out of the paint to defend their man or risk being shot out of the gym. Neither Stepheson nor Vucevic are comfortable doing that.
O'Neill has a significant weakness when it comes to depth. He will use three players off the bench, juniors Marcus Simmons (6'6" 200 lbs.) and Donte Smith (5'11" 180 lbs.), and sophomore Leonard Washington (6'7" 230 lbs.), and all play about 20 MPG but with varying degrees of success. Simmons is the most reliable of the three and on a good night he can score while he always plays good defense. However because of his slight stature he can be taken advantage of by stronger players. Washington has only played in six games and he's been pretty good since his return, but he is the definition of a loose cannon and is bound to do something on the court to get himself suspended at any time. He has a big body and he knows how to throw it around. Smith plays because O'Neill has no one better to sub Gerrity and Lewis.
The Trojans may be more athletic than the Bruins but the Bruins clearly have more basketball talent. The key for UCLA is utilizing that talent in the best way possible. USC has a strong inside presence with Stepheson and Vucevic, and they have been a very poor shooting team from the three-point line. That should scream to Howland that the Bruins should be playing a zone. USC doesn't penetrate as well as Arizona or Cal and they shoot worse than almost any other team in the conference from distance. The only concern is the rebounding and Dragovic's side of the zone. If Dragovic has been able to rectify to a certain extent his problems in the zone from the Cal game then the Bruins could force USC into an outside-only offense.
Even with the loss of J'mison Morgan for the next two or three weeks, the Bruins have more depth thatn USC. With Anderson coming off the bench, as well as Lane, Keefe and possibly Mike Moser and even Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, the Bruins could theoretically absorb more foul issues than could USC.
Then there's the mental issue. Obviously the question of which UCLA team will show up is critical, but that question can also be asked of USC, especially now. The Trojans now know that the ban their own school placed on their post-season opportunities will probably be enhanced by the sanctions coming from the NCAA. They know that their athletic department is "in flames," as one reporter put it. I mean, for goodness sakes, the USC water polo team just got reprimanded by the NCAA. Professional athletes with 10 years of experience would have a hard time ignoring this stuff. So, USC's basketball team is either going to be really focused or totally disinterested. It probably won't be apparent in the first 5 minutes if the Trojans are going to pack it in, but it will the first time they face a bit of adversity. Think how UCLA looked at Stanford times ten. I can't believe that it's been an easy week for the basketball program in South Central because when anyone in the national media talks about the NCAA investigation of USC they never fail to mention that it's the football and basketball programs that are being investigated.
UCLA's young squad has had the benefit of being off the radar for the past week. That may be a good thing and it may be a bad thing. That's one thing I can't possibly predict, how this week's focus on the football program and Norm Chow will affect a basketball team that is used to being in the spotlight this time of year. Because of the season they are having it may help the Bruins to gel for Saturday's game.
Finally, there is the factor that this UCLA team plays better when Howland has time to prepare them and he has had a full week to get the Bruins ready for this rivalry game. With everything that's been going on within the athletic department at USC, and even though athletes always say these types of things don't bother them, my guess is USC will be a bit distracted and that UCLA won't even need to put forth a superior effort to win. If they stay focused and grind away at USC's already fragile psyche then they should be 3-2 in the Pac-10 Conference come Saturday night. I know that USC has had UCLA's number recently in terms of beating the Bruins in surprising fashion, but the past is so different from the present.