USC Basketball Game Preview: UCLA Bruins


UCLA Bruins (9-5, 1-1) at USC Trojans (9-6, 1-1)

Head Coach: Ben Howland (Year 8: 175-76)

Conference: Pac-10


Location: Los Angeles, CA (Galen Center)

Time: 7:30 PM (PDT)

TV: Fox Sports Net

Radio: 1260 AM

Matchup: USC ends a nine day layoff Sunday night against the hated UCLA Bruins at the Galen Center. The Trojans are coming off of a nail-biter against Washington State that improved them to 1-1 in conference play. Kevin O’Neill’s squad built a double-digit lead late in the game, but came very close to squandering it in the final minutes. Although the Trojans haven’t played in quite a while, that hasn’t stopped pundits from jumping on the bandwagon. Earlier in the week, Seth Davis declared USC to be the second best squad in the Pac-10 and a team that would dance come March.

Like USC, UCLA is coming off of a nine day layoff of its own. The Bruins split with the Washington schools–beating Washington State on opening night and then falling to Washington on New Years’ Eve. Ben Howland’s squad garnered serious respect in the preseason media polls, but the season has been filled with unpredictability. After playing No. 3 Kansas to the wire in Lawrence, the Bruins returned home and laid an egg against Montana. Uncharacteristically, UCLA didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year, and another miss would cause the heat to turn up considerably on Ben Howland’s seat.

With transfer Jio Fontan eligible, USC is 3-2 with an upset at Tennessee and closes loses to No. 3 Kansas and Pac-10 favorite Washington. Fontan has added a lot to the USC attack in the form of 14.4 points per game. Another factor in USC’s favor is the fact that Alex Stepheson will be playing without a cast on his left hand from now on. The junior power forward has played the entire season with it after breaking his hand  in the season opener. With two functional hands, Stepheson will be even more effective at grabbing rebounds and shooting away from the basket. Early in the season, Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones logged heavy minutes and created a big impact, but the two freshman have gone relatively quiet since Fontan became eligible and there minutes were cut. Starting with the Kansas game, Bryce has shot 6 for 23 and Maurice is 12 for 35. The Trojans need these two players to get back in rhythm and provide more outlets for points. The zone defense has given USC fits, and hot shooting is the only way around it. Another player to watch for USC is Donte Smith. The senior guard has exploded this season, knocking down crucial threes all season. Because USC has chosen an identity that causes them to live and die by the three, Smith’s continual hot shooting will be a key factor in tonight’s matchup. Although USC loves to shoot the long ball, they need to find ways to get leading scorer Nikola Vucevic the ball. Inside, he is a force to be reckoned with and he has the ability to carry the team offensively if the Trojans can get him the ball. He carried USC against Washington and single-handedly forced overtime.

UCLA hopes to build on the momentum it built before the break. Despite losing to Washington in its last outing, the Bruins had found a rhythm. They have won six of their last seven, mainly due to the improved guard play of newcomer Lazeric Jones. Inconsistent performances at the guard position buried the Bruins in 2009, and Jones gives them some much needed stability. Malcolm Lee, who ran the point a year ago, continues to struggle. His assist-to-turnover ratio is just above 1, while Jones is at 1.5. UCLA doesn’t stand out in any offensive categories, but their balance is tough for opponents to deal with. Five players average double figures, so defensive schemes can’t focus on one player like USC did against Texas and Washington. Freshman Joshua Smith will go head to head with Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic inside. Smith averages 10 points per game pulls down 7 boards per game. The center is shooting 52.6%, but he does not have an outside game. He has yet to attempt a three-pointer, and if USC can ratchet up the pressure and deny him the ball, the rookie will be very frustrated. The problem will be containing Smith and Reeves Nelson at the same time. USC doesn’t have depth inside, and they could get worn down trying to defend both. Nelson leads the Bruins in scoring, averaging 15 points per game and shooting just over 55%.

USC has beaten UCLA three times in a row, dating back to the 2009 Pac-10 Tournament Championship Game. The key to last season’s victories were fast starts. By the time the Bruins woke up, the lead was insurmountable. If the Trojans want to repeat a sweep, getting off to a fast start is a must. They will likely struggle against the zone defense, and they must bring their A game shooting. Washington is likely going to run away with the conference, but after that the race is wide open. The Pac-10 will garner at least two bids, and tonight’s contest is an early test to see who can get off to a solid start.