This is it.
USC basketball, fading down the stretch, has a put-up-or-shut-up game Wednesday night. Playing against rival UCLA, the Trojans will definitely be in the field of 68 if they beat the Bruins, who have limped to a 6-12 conference record and 15-16 overall. If they lose, things could get tense leading up to Selection Sunday this weekend.
Not only is there an opportunity to stake your claim on an NCAA tournament at-large bid, but a chance to send your crosstown rival home with a sub .500 record for one of their worst seasons in decades.
The Trojans have bested UCLA twice and both times by significant margins, but as the old adage goes, it's hard to beat a team three times. That's particulary the case against a bitter rival that has a lot of talent but just hasn't been able to put things together this season under head coach Steve Alford.
USC's players know they are capable of beating UCLA, but do they have the confidence in themselves to play to their potential?
Here's what else 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:
That's Mr. All-Pac-12 to You - Despite other players having better stats than him, Julian Jacobs was selected as USC's first first team all-conference selection since 2011. The Pac-12 coaches who voted on the players were able to look beyond the straight point totals to see the impact that Jacobs has on the game for USC.
As was evident against Washington earlier this year, USC is a drastically different team with and without Jacobs. He's the Trojans' leader on the court and a highlight reel waiting to happen with his explosive dunks that have posterized some of the league's premier shotblockers. Jacobs is averaging 11.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and has better than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while leading the league in assists with 5.4 assists.
62 Years of History - What would a win mean for the USC Trojans? Besides likely locking up the NCAA tournament bid and moving on in the Pac-12 tournament, it's a chance to write over some 62-year old history the Trojans have with the Bruins. Since 1954, the Trojans have never beat UCLA three times in a season despite sometimes playing as many as five games in a year (1960). USC actually has only swept the season series five times since World War II.
There's also a shot at redemption for last season's Pac-12 tournament game against the Bruins that saw UCLA dominate from the opening tip. It won an easy rout, 96-70, with Isaac Hamilton dropping in 36 points.
Defense, Defense, Defense - In the first two matchups, USC defeated UCLA because of their defense. In the first matchup, we wrote about how the Trojans hassled Bryce Alford all game. But in both matchups, they have limited the wing presence of Alford and Hamilton.
"We have pretty good guards," USC head coach Andy Enfield said after the win at Galen Center. "They took the challenge to try to defend and make it tough. You're not going to shut down those guys. Hamilton and Alford are as good of scorers as we've played against all season. Our goal was just to make it challenging for them."
In that matchup, USC forced UCLA's role players to try to beat them. They left big men and Prince Ali open for jumpers. They doubled down on Tony Parker when they could and made someone other than Alford or Hamilton be the one to shoot. How will the Trojans attack UCLA defensively this game and what adjustments can Steve Alford make to try to counter USC's attempts to shut Bryce and Hamilton?
USC held UCLA to 34.8 percent shooting in the last matchup. The Trojans are 9-1 when their opponent shoots 40 percent or less, but they haven't held a team below 40 percent since that matchup.
Minutes for Clark - How active will Darion Clark be coming off the bench for USC? With the physical Tony Parker, who has excelled when given an opportunity against USC, manning the interior for UCLA, how big a role can Clark paly in an attempt to combat Parker's effectiveness. Parker owned Clark and any other Trojan that tried to guard him at Pauley Pavilion, notching a double-double with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Clark wasn't available for the game at Galen Center and Parker dominated as much as his coach allowed him to, scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds in only 14 minutes of court time.
Being the most physical player on the team, Clark must be able to slow down Parker to an extent. Clark needs to be a guy that can check in when Parker does and keep him from getting easy bucket after easy bucket.
Dead Legs? - USC has seen its run-and-gun, high scoring offense limited recently. The Trojans' offensive production has been stymied in large part because the shotmakers have become the brick layers. No one seems to be catching fire at the right time. Instead, the team looks like it is playing on dead legs as jump shots have not been falling. During their current funk, losing six of their last eight games to end the regular season, the Trojans have shot 18.2, 44.0, 28.6, 58.8, 27.8, 33.3 44.0, 21.1 percent on three-point attempts.
With an offense that wants to push the tempo and then kick out to shooters on the wings, those percentages just don't cut it. Against UCLA, the Trojans have shot 45 and 40 percent. They will need at least that to feel good about their shooting and be in good position to avoid an upset.
Alford Dinged - Bryce Alford has been the most polarizing figure in the Pac-12, but when he gets hot, he can carry his team to a victory. Alford enters the Pac-12 tournament nursing an injury after taking an elbow to the face against Oregon State. He couldn't eat much for a day or two (we're guessing no cupcakes) and he's been in some serious pain, but he should be able to play through on Wednesday. However, how much impact will Alford be able to sustain if he takes another blow or two? And will he alter his game to avoid going in amongst the trees and their long arms and sharp elbow.
Know Thy Enemy - UCLA has lost four in a row and has just one win over a team higher in the Pac-12 standings since Jan. 20. Sitting at 15-16 overall, the Bruins know they have to find a way to win the Pac-12 tournament if they want to reach the NCAA tournament. UCLA has the talent to make a strong run as they have proved with big wins over then-No. 1 Kentucky, then-No. 20 Gonazaga and then-No. 7 Arizona, but hasn't put it together recently. But playing against USC and the potential of playing spolier, expect UCLA to bring their 'A' game.
Season Matchups: USC won 80-61 on Feb. 4, 2016.
In front of a sold out Galen Center crowd, Julian Jacobs took the opening tip to the bucket and USC held a lead for the next 39:55. The Trojans controlled the game throughout due to their great defensive effort on the wings against Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Jacobs had a game-high 17 points and Jordan McLaughlin dished out 10 assists in the victory
USC won 89-75 on Jan. 13, 2016.
Point guard Jordan McLaughlin played through illness that would last more than two weeks to score 23 points and dish out four assists with no turnovers while freshman Chimezie Metu had his first true breakout performance. Metu scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds as USC was able to answer after run that UCLA had. Tony Parker dominated down low. He led the Bruins with 27 points and 12 rebounds while the Trojans did a nice job holding down Bryce Alford, who scored just nine points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 6:00 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks (Ted Robinson, Bill Walton, Lewis Johnson)
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 - Jonah Bolden (6-10 sophomore)
F - Tony Parker (6-9 senior)
G - Julian Jacobs (6-4 junior)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 sophomore)
G - Elijah Stewart (6-5 junior)
F - Bennie Boatwright (6-10 freshman)
F - Nikola Jovanovic (6-11 junior)