Since crushing the Bruins in January the Trojans have gone 3-3, beating teams they shouldn't and losing to teams they shouldn't. Perhaps that bodes well for the Bruins' chances. USC has been all over the map in terms of its play over the past few weeks and there's nothing in the way that USC is playing that should surprise anyone. The key for the Trojans has been the offense or lack thereof. USC has one bona fide scorer in senior Dwight Lewis (6'5" 215 lbs.) who torched the Bruins for 24 points in the first meeting, and then a collection of athletes who, while not skilled scorers, are far superior athletically to the Bruins. Outside of that great performance against the Bruins, though, Lewis has been pretty average this year. He leads the Trojans in scoring at 13.3 PPG, but the key is that Lewis is only shooting 31% from the three-point line. In the first meeting Lewis was able to hit early and often from deep because of the screens his teammates set against a very porous UCLA man defense. Once he gained his confidence it seemed as if Lewis couldn't miss. Against the UCLA zone Lewis may have more trouble scoring. It is important to note, though, that for UCLA to bother Lewis with its zone then the Bruins have to play with passion and focus. The Bruins need to know where Lewis is at all times. If UCLA lacks focus then UCLA could allow Lewis to have the kind of performance that Stanford's Landry Fields had last week when he scored 35 points against the Bruins. It can't be overstated that the Bruins can't allow Lewis to gain confidence right away or else they will be staring at a comparable outcome to what happened when these two teams met at Pauley Pavilion.
If the zone is played effectively then UCLA should be able to offset the other area that USC has an advantage; size. Trojan Coach Kevin O'Neill starts two of the best big men in the Pac-10 in junior Alex Stepheson (6'9" 235 lbs.) and sophomore Nikola Vucevic (6'10" 240 lbs.). Stepheson is a physical brute who really didn't do anything outstanding in the first UCLA/USC game. He rebounds well and scores when he's around the basket, but a zone defense can specifically neutralize a player like Stepheson fairly easily. The danger-man is Vucevic. While he isn't a deep shooting threat he is very good out to about 15 feet. That means he could be the "zone-buster" rather than an outside shooter like Lewis. One of the weak spots in any 2-3 zone is in the so-called "short corner" that sits in the space between the low, middle defender and the two low, wing defenders. It is in this space that Vucevic can excel. That means that UCLA will need to be active defensively along the baseline and that may mean seeing more of Tyler Honeycutt at the ‘4" and a bit less of Nikola Dragovic. That doesn't mean that Dragovic's minutes are going to drop to 15 minutes, but it does mean that Coach Ben Howland may be forced to go to extreme lengths to play effective defense against the Trojans. If Vucevic is given any space along the baseline then he will burn the Bruins. He is coming off an 18 point 14 rebound performance against Stanford and is more than capable of doing the same to the Bruins.
Stepheson and Vucevic aren't the only reasons that USC has a size advantage in this game. Senior Marcus Johnson (6'6" 210 lbs.) and sophomore Marcus Simmons (6'6" 200 lbs.) both play bigger than their size precisely because of their athleticism. Johnson helped the Trojans to own the boards in the first meeting while Simmons can be used as a lockdown defender.
All of that simply deals with the defensive end of the floor for the Bruins. USC's defense presents the Bruins with a whole host of other issues. The first time these two teams met the Trojan defense completely shut down the Bruin offense. While some of that had to do with UCLA's lackadaisical effort, even had the Bruins brought their ‘A' game they still would have had trouble scoring against what is clearly the best defense in the Pac-10. UCLA doesn't have a single player on its roster that can take their respective Trojan off the dribble. That means that UCLA must screen and pass efficiently and quickly in order to get good shots. In order to do this expect the Bruins to run their motion offense almost exclusively. Further, UCLA must take their time on offense to look for the best shot possible. That means that Dragovic can't be taking deep ‘threes' ten seconds into the shot clock when the Bruins have no offensive balance.
The Bruins certainly have their work cut out for them, but then they did when they beat California on the road and Washington at home and both the Bears and the Huskies, while not as good as USC on the defensive end, are better teams than the Trojans. The Trojans have an advantage on the boards, they have one player who can take over the game and they play the kind of pressure defense that has given UCLA real problems this season.
The Galen Center reportedly will be close to sold out for the game but the USC home court isn't as intimidating as is Oregon's Mac Court or Cal's Haas Pavilion.
The Bruins are certainly saying the right things this week as they talk about how they will be motivated to not be embarrassed again, etc. Quite frankly, the Bruins have been playing fairly consistently since they lost to USC. Although the Bruins are coming off a tough home loss to Cal it is important to keep in mind that UCLA's most potent inside weapon, Reeves Nelson, was playing with a concussion that threw him off his game and took away any balance the UCLA offense might have had once the Bears decided to take away Mike Roll. Assuming Nelson is healthy and doesn't suffer a setback in the game then the Bruins should be able to give USC a tough game.
Still, the key is the athletic advantage that USC has over the Bruins and how the Trojans use that advantage on the defensive end. In many ways USC's defense under O'Neill reminds one of UCLA's defense during Howland's run of Final Four appearances. The Trojans will stay in almost any game they play because of their defense. Because of UCLA's inability to grind out wins with offense and defense that means USC has a distinct advantage.
While the Bruins will almost certainly play with more inspiration than the first game against the Trojans the fact that USC has the advantage in athleticism, plays better defense and has the two players on the floor, (Lewis and Vucevic), who can take over a game should lead to a solid Trojan win, their first one ever over the Bruins at the Galen Center.