Coming off an instant classic victory in quadruple overtime against No. 7 Arizona, USC takes to the road for one of its toughest matchups of the season -- at Pauley Pavilion for the Crosstown Showdown.
The Bruins are a solid club coming off its second Sweet 16 appearance in three years under Steve Alford, but coupling the emotion of a rivalry game with the after-effects of Saturday's drama-filled victory makes it an even tougher task to go into a hostile environment and come out with a victory. USC has lost its last six against UCLA, but its last win did come in Westwood when the Trojans won in overtime in 2013.
That win was before Andy Enfield and Steve Alford took over. Alford's baby bear pack have dominated the series since. This matchup should be the most competitve of the Enfield/Alford-era.
Here's what to watch, where you can see the game, a flashback to the last time these teams played and the projected starting lineups.
What to Watch:
Battle Down Low or Bring to Wing? - Sophomore Thomas Welsh has taken a big step forward this year. After averaging 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds last year, Welsh has become a presence in the paint. He is scoring 12.8 points and grabbing 8.8 boards while shooting 58 percent. Part of what makes Welsh such a tough guard is that he is paired with 6-foot-9 bruiser Tony Parker.
The Bruins' lone senior, Parker is nearly averaging a double-double per game (13.0, 9.9). UCLA's 6-foot-11 sophomore Gyorgy Goloman could also make his season debut after a leg injury has kept him sidelined. Last year, the Bruins scored 132 points in the paint in three games against USC and the Trojans have struggled at times keeping opponents off the offensive glass where UCLA is averaging 13.7 per game.
How will the Trojans try to guard the Bruins down low? Arizona was able to push out to an early lead on Saturday by working the ball inside-out. USC began the game doubling down on the post players with guards, but the Wildcats' "non-shooters" were knocking down their shots. Next was an attempt to play them straight up, which also failed.
"That wasn't working, so then we switched and we doubled big on big and I thought that was very effective," Enfield said after the game. "Once we started doubling with our other big and our guards would rotate down into the hole, I thought it hurt their bigs a little bit. They just weren't able to get clean looks."
Arizona power forward Ryan Anderson entered as the team's leading scorer at 15.1 points per game, but he exited with just five points despite the game going four overtime (equivalent to an extra half of play). The graduate transfer was matched up with USC freshman Bennie Boatwright most of the time and Boatwright relished in the opportunity on both ends of the floor. He went after Anderson. In the third overtime, Boatwright took Anderson to the basket on back-to-back possessions, drawing fouls on both. He had a look of disgust on his face, basically telling Anderson he couldn't guard him.
"Oh yea. It's a lot of fun. I love matchups," Boatwright said of going head to head with Anderson. "The coaching staff believes in me and I feel like when I have a matchup that they will go to me, so I have to go get a bucket."
USC doesn't necessarily have the bigs to battle straight up with UCLA, but on the flip side, when Bennie Boatwright is in the game at the four position, who is going to come out and guard him on the perimeter. Neither Welsh nor Parker has the lateral quickness to keep up with Boatwright off the dribble and he's too good of a shooter for them to play off. Boatwright's ability to drive and kick to teammates could prove the be the key to the game.
Effective Recovery? - After 60 minutes of action against Arizona, the Trojans had a relatively short week before the UCLA game. Rather than playing Thursday or Friday, they play a day earlier than normal. Will that have any impact? Not likely. The combination of strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz and nutritionist Becci Twombley have been doing wonders for the Trojans this season. The players have raved about how great their bodies have responded and how they feel many of them are in the best shape they've ever been in.
That's why after playing a career-high 49 minutes -- 12 more than he had ever played at USC -- Elijah Stewart still had pep in his step after the game Saturday. When Jordan McLaughlin quipped with a tinge of sarcasm he was "ready to go again" in the post-game news conference, Stewart quickly responded, "Honestly." He was ready for another overtime or two.
"There were spurts where I felt tired, but we do so much conditioning," Stewart said. "Our strength coach, he does such a good job with us, keeping our legs strong and our wind up. I am losing my voice though."
Though we're pretty sure we know why his voice was going:
Getting Katin Going - Katin Reinhardt, who had been USC's leading scorer, slipped to fourth on the team after scoring just two points against Arizona and only 17 points in the last three games. With all five starters averaging between 12 and 13 points, one big game could easily put him right back atop the list. The Trojans need Reinhardt to be effective to give them one more shooter on the wings to knock down the three balls, but even without Reinahrdt, USC has been able to rely on other players to step up -- a luxury that hasn't been seen by the cardinal and gold faithful in a while.
"Katin is a terrific basketball player. He just has to keep going. He's played great basketball. He's struggled with his shooting a little bit the last couple games, but he's very valuable to our team," Andy Enfield said. "He's shooting high percentages and he's improved his play this year. We rely on him, but when you when you have six guys in double figures it's okay for one or two elite players to have off nights. We expect him to be back on in our next game and help us win."
He gets a good opponent for a slumpbuster. In three games against UCLA last year, Reinhardt scored 17.3 points while knocking down 12 of his 19 three-pointers and shooting 56 percent from the floor.
Know Thy Enemy - The Bruins enter the game with a pedestrian-on-the-surface 11-6 record. However, they have wins over then No. 1 Kentucky, then No. 20 Gonazaga and then No. 7 Arizona. Two of their losses are to current top five teams as well. When UCLA plays well, it is hard to beat. Unforunately for the Trojans, the Bruins aren't going to throw up a dud in the Crosstown Showdown like they have against Wake Forest and Washington State.
Though neither team is ranked, this is the biggest game in the rivalry series in a few years. Both teams proved last week they have the talent to win the Pac-12, so this game will go a long way in the early conference standings. With this being the only game for either team this week, the winner of the game is almost assured of being in the top 25 next week (assuming their are a couple of top 25 losses this week). Both teams were at the front of the "others receiving votes" line with USC at No. 26 and UCLA at No. 28 in the AP poll.
Big Shot Bryce - Say what you want about Bryce Alford. Yes, he is the coach's son. As a freshman, yes, he probably got more playing time than he deserved. Last year, yes, he settled for three-pointers too often. But know that Alford has improved his game every year and has become one of the Pac-12's top weapons and that's before the final two minutes of games. Then he becomes a big-shot making beast. He is third in the Pac-12 scoring 17.4 points per game and it seems like half of those points come in the final moments of games.
He was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for his exploits against the Arizona schools last week when drained a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to beat Arizona and knocked down a dagger with 24 seconds left to put away the game against Arizona State. Alford also knocked down three late 3-pointers to force two overtimes at Washington -- two to tie the score in regulation and another to tie it up in the first overtime.
Who will the Trojans charge to try to guard Alford and how will they handle the high pick-and-roll that UCLA loves to run with Tony Parker and to a lesser extent Thomas Welsh? Putting a bigger body like Elijah Stewart or Katin Reinhardt on Alford and trying to force him to shoot over their length and athleticism might be an option, but Alford's ballhandling ability could force Julian Jacobs or Jordan McLaughlin to have to guard him. USC has also used some box/diamond-and-1 defenses at times this season, but Issac Hamilton is a pure shot maker, it will have to account for. He is shooting 48.9 percent this season and averaging 16.5 points. The Trojans have first hand experience with his abilities after he dropped 36 points in the Pac-12 tournament last year.
Cupcakes? - Speaking of Bryce Alford, he said he's looking forward to this game because of USC's competitiveness this season. But it was how he said it:
"You don’t want to play cupcakes," Alford told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not saying they were ever a cupcake. But we like that they’re getting better.”
Last Matchup: UCLA won 96-70 on March 12, 2015.
The Bruins proved it didn't matter whether they played the Trojans in L.A. or in Las Vegas. It was going to be a blowout regardless. Isaac Hamilton scored 15 points more than his previous season high, torching the Trojans with a 36-point effort. He was unconscious shooting the ball. He made 13 of his 17 shots, including knocking down 7-of-9 three-pointers. UCLA shot 60 percent from the field and 60 percent (12-for-20) on threes in an easy win. Katin Reinhardt led USC with 20 points off the bench, making five of his nine 3-pointers. Nikola Jovanovic added 17 points, but UCLA scored 50 points in the paint and USC had 18 turnovers.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 8:00 p.m. PST, ESPN2 (D)
Radio: ESPN 710, TuneIn Radio (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Aaron Holiday (6-1 freshman)
G - Bryce Alford (6-3 junior)
G - Isaac Hamilton (6-5 junior)
F - Tony Parker (6-9 senior)
C - Thomas Welsh (7-0 sophomore)
G - Julian Jacobs (6-4 junior)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 sophomore)
G - Katin Reinhardt (6-6 junior)
F - Bennie Boatwright (6-10 freshman)
F - Nikola Jovanovic (6-11 junior)