The USC Trojans are set to battle cross-town rival UCLA this Sunday in what will be a critical matchup for both teams. The Pac-12 Standings have tightened up, making every game critical down the stretch. UCLA currently sits in third place with the Trojans closing in currently two games back in the loss column.
The Trojans have won four out of the last five games, while UCLA is equally hot losing only one out of their last four contests. To help parse out the facts on the Bruins, Go Joe Bruin lead editor Jeffrey Poirier shares his insight on all things UCLA Basketball. Also make sure to check out our preview on Go Joe Bruin.
UCLA and USC will tip from the Galen Center Sunday at 12:30 on Fox Sports Net
Reign of Troy: In the last meeting, Byron Wesley and Ari Stewart gave Shabazz Muhammad problems in the first half, resulting in a poor shooting performance. What will be Muhammad’s approach to attacking the USC defense, especially with Stewart out?
Go Joe Bruin: Shabazz ended up with 22 points in the last game, but it was on 7-of-18 field goal shooting, so there’s certainly room for improvement this time around. That game was in the midst of a slide for UCLA, which was mostly caused by selfish play on offense from the Bruins’ go-to scorers. Shabazz was the main culprit during that stretch, as he would more often than not dribble into traffic and take a difficult, off-balance shot. And given UCLA’s rebounding struggles, missed shots on short possessions proved deadly. Since then, the Bruins have played much better team basketball, which has resulted in an increase in assists and offensive efficiency. Assuming that positive trend continues, Shabazz and UCLA’s offense should fare much better against USC in the rematch.
RoT: Aaron Fuller and Eric were very efficient against UCLA’s front court, who needs to step up in the paint for the Bruins to limit the second chance points and easy baskets that USC thrived on in the last meeting?
GJB: In order for UCLA to shut down Fuller, Wise and the rest of the Trojans’ scorers, the Bruins will need to play bigger and stronger in the low post and paint. Fuller was particularly troubling in the last game, as he was 6-of-7 from the floor with four offensive rebounds. For UCLA to be successful, the Wear twins will need to protect the rim and prevent USC’s 7-footers from dictating the game. Particularly, Travis Wear will need to step up and attack the boards. He had only five rebounds in 38 minutes in the loss at Pauley Pavilion.
RoT: The Bruins have struggled this season to get production from their bench, and it places added pressure on the talented starting five. What bench player have you seen play better in the last few weeks, that will make a serious impact on Sunday?
GJB: One of the biggest issues for UCLA this season has been depth. The Bruins only have eight scholarship players, and really only play a seven man rotation because of how little freshman Tony Parker sees the court. So finding consistency and stability from a thin bench has been problematic. With that said, I think Norman Powell is the reserve with the best chance to have an impact vs. USC. Powell is extremely athletic, and actually has the highest vertical leap on the team. He is also the Bruins’ best on-ball defender and can get buckets when he attacks the basket. In the first meeting, Powell was a complete non-factor, scoring zero points on 0-of-3 shooting. A large part of the problem was that all three of his attempts were from three-point range. And while he is a pretty solid shooter from deep, he is more valuable driving the lane for higher percentage looks. Powell has been showing more confidence in recent games, so he should be able to find his shot on Sunday.
RoT: In their last few games, the Bruins have had trouble on the glass. With a much larger USC squad looming, what can the Bruins do to compete in that department?
GJB: Rebounding ineptitude is nothing new for this UCLA team; it has been an ongoing problem for the entire season. Deficiencies on the glass contributed directly to the Bruins’ losses to Arizona State and USC, both squads with taller front courts. But the unfortunate news for UCLA fans is that the problems have persisted even against equally sized teams. So, when it comes down to it, UCLA has been getting beat on hustle plays and 50-50 balls. And if the Bruins hope to even the season series at the Galen Center, they will need to box out and rebound like they want to win.
RoT: The Bruins looked like two different teams over the weekend, dominating Stanford and getting shot of the gym by Cal. What can UCLA do early in the contest to gain confidence on the road?
GJB: Even I, an avid follower of all things UCLA athletics, can not figure out this Bruins squad sometimes. The last two road trips have been about as up-and-down as you can get. One night UCLA will look like an elite team (i.e., thrashing Arizona in Tucson), then they will turn around and play like a confused group of freshmen two days later (i.e., 18-point loss to Arizona State). In order for UCLA to gain some confidence on Sunday, the Bruins will need to bring the intensity on defense from the opening tip. In the game at Pauley vs. USC, UCLA came storming back to force an improbable overtime session because the defense kicked in late. And because the Bruins thrive in transition, solid defense always leads to productive offense for Ben Howland’s team. If UCLA comes out fired up on defense, the Bruins have a much better shot at building some momentum early on.
RoT: Do you feel like the Bruins have cemented a bid to the NCAA tournament, and if not, what do they need to accomplish before the end of this season.
GJB: At 19-7 with five regular season games to play, I think UCLA is a safe bet for the NCAA Tournament. The only way I see the Bruins missing out on the Big Dance is if they suffer an epic collapse, losing three of the next five games and bowing out of the Pac-12 Tourney in the first round. That seems unlikely, but crazier things have happened. Ultimately, I think UCLA ends up getting seeded in the 6-8 range.