When asked separately if they were ready for their first opportunity to participate in the Crosstown Showdown, USC's two local freshmen, guards De'Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews, said the exact same thing.
"You already know."
The Trojans welcome the No. 8 UCLA Bruins to a SOLD OUT Galen Center Wednesday night in the team's first matchup of the season after USC swept the season series last year winning by an average of 19 points.
But the Trojans (17-4, 4-4) already know that this is a different Bruins team from last year. The addition of 6-foot-6 freshman sensation Lonzo Ball at the point guard position has opened up the offense and turned UCLA (19-2, 6-2) into a scoring machine. Ball and fellow Southern California freshman TJ Leaf will be looking to make their marks against Melton, Mathews and the Trojans in what is likely to be their only trip to the Galen Center before departing after the season for the NBA Draft.
UCLA head coach Steve Alford is also anxious to get back on the winning side of the rivalry.
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:
Coming Alive - Coming into the season, there were a lot of question marks for USC after the exodus of players with eligibility remaining, but the Trojans felt they could overcome the losses in part because of Elijah Stewart becoming more consistent. Stewart has flashed his potential throughout his USC career, but putting together a solid performance night after night had never happened. A 22-point, perfect 10 for 10 effort against Boston College as a freshman was followed by Stewart scoring 26 total points over the next 13 games.
Throughout the non-conference schedule this season, Stewart appeared to have turned the corner. He was leading the team averaging 15.5 points per game, including scoring in double figures in 11 of the first 13 games. He was shooting 43.5 percent, including 41.4 from deep. He was tied for the Pac-12 lead, making 2.8 three-pointers per game. But once non-conference hit, Stewart slumped...hard.
He made just four three-pointers in the first six Pac-12 games. He was shooting just 29.1 percent from the floor in conference play and 17.3 percent on three-pointers after missing his first five shots in the Arizona game last week. He had gone seven straight games without scoring more than 11 points. But then he got a dunk...then a transition three...then five more baskets in a row and helped USC rally for a chance late against the Wildcats. Stewart finished with 20 points for the first time in nearly a month. He followed that up with a 29-point performance against Arizona State, tying his career high with seven made 3-pointers.
"If my numbers take a hit and we're winning, I'm really not trippin," Stewart said after Sunday's win. "But the team tells me I have to score for us to win, so I've just been trying to be productive and not just a liability."
His team is absolutely right. The Trojans need Stewart to be a scorer on the wing, especially with Bennie Boatwright injured. He is the Trojans' x-factor. The offense looks much different when he is scoring the basketball and to beat UCLA, he will need to be an offensive weapon. He is averaging 10.1 points in six career games against the Bruins.
Stopping the Run and Gun - UCLA really wants to push the tempo and you can imagine that Steve Alford will emphasize that even more against USC considering Andy Enfield's 2013 practice exclamation that "if you want to play slow, go to UCLA." The Bruins feature the second highest scoring offense in the nation at 93 points per game. They shoot a nation's best 53.1 percent because of how many easy baskets and open looks they get in transition.
USC will have to find a way to keep the Bruins from beating them down the floor. But that means a philosophy dilemma. Are you going to be aggressive or cautious? UCLA struggles on the defensive boards. Do you attack and try to get extra opportunities or do you abandon offensive rebounding to make sure that you get defenders back and prepared to play on the defensive end?
If USC forces UCLA to play a half-court game, it has the athletes to follow Arizona's game plan, which was to stick to shooters and not give up the open looks that someone like Lonzo Ball is able to create for his teammates. But the Trojans have struggled to give the necessary effort to stick to their man-to-man defense for an entire game. USC can't afford any of the 3-5-minute zoned-out lapses as it is often prone to. It has to battle for all 40 minutes and that starts on the defensive end.
Knockdowns - If USC wants to keep UCLA from running, the easiest alternative is to make shots. When your opponent has to take the ball out of the basket after a made field goal, their ability to get out on the run is severely hampered. Elijah Stewart recently broke out of his shooting slump, but the Trojans need more than just one wing player that can knock down shots. Deep misses lead to long rebounds, which could lead to quick outlets going the other way. Deep makes go for three points and allows your defense to get back.
Missing Big Men? - The Trojans are missing their biggest mismatch against UCLA. Bennie Boatwright's ability to play on the wing would give them versatility in the frontcourt along with Chimezie Metu matching up against TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh, forcing one of them to defend on the perimeter. Boatwright has been practicing since last Friday, but still has been a non-contact participant. The hope is that he may be available next week.
The real question is whether Charles Buggs will be available or will USC be forced to use it's four-guard lineup for lengthy stretches of the game. Buggs' knee continues to hamper him. He had it drained in the middle of last week, but the inflammation quickly came back forcing him to have to miss practice and Sunday's game. UCLA has four legitimate post players, so if Buggs is out, expect the Bruins to try to attack the post to its advantage. Shaqquan Aaron could wind up with the tough task of playing the '4' and trying to guard Leaf, who will want to try to beat Aaron with his back-to-the-basket game.
Motivated Metu - Chimezie Metu has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to UCLA because he feels the Bruins overlooked him in the recruiting process. A motivated Metu is a monster, especially against the Bruins. Last season, Metu had a season-high 21 points in the first matchup against UCLA and added a double-double in the teams' Pac-12 tournament matchup. His athleticism matches up well against Bruins center Thomas Welsh. Welsh is likely going to play off and give Metu open mid-range jumpers. If Metu can knock them down, he could have another big night against the crosstown rival.
Last Matchup: USC won 95-71 in Pac-12 Tournament on Mar. 10, 2016.
USC completed a season sweep of UCLA for the first time in 74 years and handed the Bruins what was possibly their most embarrassing defeat since before John Wooden took over in Westwood. The 24-point beatdown was USC's largest margin of victory over UCLA since 1945 and sent the Bruins home for the offseason, eliminating them from the Pac-12 Tournament to complete their season. The Trojans raced out to an 11-0 lead and never looked back. Bennie Boatwright led six USC players in double figures with 19 points and nine rebounds while Chimezie Metu notched his first career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 8:00 p.m. PST, FS1 (Joe Davis, Chris Fisher, Jim Jackson).
Radio: AM 690 (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore).
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Lonzo Ball (6-6 freshman)
G - Bryce Alford (6-3 senior)
G - Issac Hamilton (6-5 senior)
F - TJ Leaf (6-10 freshman)
C - Thomas Welsh (6-9 junior)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 junior)
G - De'Anthony Melton (6-4 freshman)
G - Elijah Stewart (6-5 junior)
F - Charles Buggs (6-9 senior)
F - Chimezie Metu (6-11 sophomore)
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