The 21st ranked Trojans will take on the 12th ranked UCLA Saturday at what should be a very full and very loud Galen Center.
There is no beating around the bush on this one, this is a huge game! For starters, UCLA sits a half game up on the Trojans in Pac 12 play (the Bruins are 9-3 compared to the Trojans 9-4 in conference). USC is barely hanging on to the 4th seed in the Pac, which will secure a first round bye in the conference Tournament, so any opportunity to beat a higher seeded team and ensure the extra rest will be critical to a conference tournament run.
Second, this game will play a huge factor in selection Sunday seeding. While USC’s 20-4 record is impressive on paper, the Trojans lack an abundance of “Quad 1” wins, which help determine seeding for the NCAA Tournament. USC is only 1-1 in Quad 1 games, having defeated Washington State on the road, and falling to Arizona last week in Tucson. UCLA has ranked as high as #2, and will surely be a highly seeded team come March. This game should also serve as a solid bench mark for assessing the Trojans as we move into the home stretch of the season. The lack of tough opponents have left us with more questions than answers, as us fans continue to beg for an offensive identity.
Lastly, and most importantly to die-hard Trojans fans, this game leads to bragging rights. USC has won 4 straight against Mick Cronin and the Bruins (including 2 buzzer beaters from instant legends Jonah Mathews and Tahj Eaddy). UCLA will always be the “basketball school” in Los Angeles, but Andy Enfield deserves a ton of credit for flipping the script in recent years. USC has been improved drastically in the past few years in both record and player development. Andy has shown that the USC path has lead to professional success (Evan Mobley, De’Anthony Melton, Onyeka Ogonkwu, Jordan McLaughlin and others) and recruiting has improved dramatically in the past few years. Tonight’s game will be a tough, physical and fast paced game. Both teams are more than capable of winning, but it will require a full 40 minutes from either side to pull out the W. I cannot wait!
UCLA Team Breakdown
The 17-4 Bruins enter tonight’s game ranked 12th in the nation after suffering back-to-back losses on the Arizona road trip. Coach Mick Cronin inherited a Bruin’s program in disarray and quickly flipped the script to turn UCLA into a stout defensive unit with a dynamic offense. UCLA touts an experienced starting five, led by Junior wing Johnny Juzang. Juzang, who spurred the Bruins final 4 run last year, transferred from Kentucky and immediately meshed with Cronin’s scheme. The 6’7” LA Native leads the Bruins averaging 18 points per game. Juzang is most dangerous from the mid-range, but shows little to no hesitancy in pulling up from deep. Juzang has reached 20 points in 6 of the Bruins last 8 games, and has been efficient in the process.
Joining Juzang in the starting lineup are Jules Bernard, Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and Cody Riley. Bernard and Jaquez round out what the three headed monster for Cronin. The trio of 6’7” swiss army knives are matchup nightmares for most teams. Both average about 13 points per game and look to take advantage of size advantages at all three levels. Bernard leads the Bruins in both 3 point attempts and Free Throw attempts speaking to his versatility. From watching UCLA play a bunch this year, if Bernard gets going UCLA is very tough to beat, he is simply the “forgotten man” and he can capitalize in a hurry. Jaquez is Cronin’s best defender, and if UCLA deploys a man defense, I expect him to have the unenviable assignment of Isaiah Mobley. He is physical, tough and sturdy, and will have no problem chasing Isaiah around the court. Of course, Jaquez gives up 3 inches and about 20 pounds to Mobley, but UCLA will hope his defensive acumen and feel for his opponent will give him an inherent advantage. Jaquez also leads UCLA averaging 5.6 boards per game, he is a basketball player in the truest sense of the term.
Tyger Campbell quarterbacks the Bruin offense and leads the team averaging nearly 5 assists per game. Campbell always seems to make the right decision and has improved his scoring this year as well, now averaging 11 points per game. The 5’10” guard will have his hands full with 6’4” Boogie Ellis, and USC will need to caution all of its players against aggressive drives to the lane, UCLA is very well coached defensively, and can rack up charges in a hurry. Ethan Anderson has outplayed Campbell head-to-head the last few years, and it should be interesting to see if Andy plays the matchup and tries to neutralize Campbell with his most aggressive defender or plays the matchup game with Agbonkpolo, White or Dixon-Waters.
Cody Riley is the lone big for the Bruins, as the 6’9” Forward anchors the key for UCLA. While Riley is not heavily relied upon for his offense, he is a big body who is efficient inside when he needs to be. Riley averages just 7.9 points per game and 3 rebounds, but he is a stout defender and plays his role very well for Cronin.
Very much like USC, UCLA features a deep and versatile bench, filling a wide variety of roles for Cronin. Notably, sharp shooters David Singleton and Jake Kyman are microwave scorers, capable of walking on the court and hitting a three or two. Additionally, Freshman Peyton Watson who is projected to be a future first round pick, will see run time and serves as a hyper-athletic defensive stopper. Jaylen Clark relives Campbell and 6’10” Myles Johnson serves as Riley’s backup inside.
While very different from USC on paper, UCLA follows a similar formula. Juzang is going to score, he is gifted scorer who can create on his own under almost any circumstance. UCLA has success when the rest of their starters also have success, Bernard is the X-factor. If he heats up from deep, he plays a Drew Peterson type role for the Bruins, and they become too much offensively to contain. UCLA wants to push and has the athletes to set tempo, fortunately USC has the depth to compete athletically with UCLA, but the tempo should be fascinating to watch. USC has been a defensive juggernaut, but has shown vulnerabilities on the perimeter. The Trojan wings need to be quick in rotation, and jump over any on ball screens to keep UCLA moving and uncomfortable.
I expect a chess match, with each coach countering strategic plays from the other. Andy has improved dramatically in his in-game coaching, and tonight will be a good chance to put the country on notice.
1. What is the status of Isaiah Mobley?
Isaiah is going to play. Andy told the media that he was being fitted for a face mask after breaking his nose against Arizona. Whether it impairs his ability to play, or play well, we will have to wait and see. Mobley is such a key cog to the Trojan offense, that even 75% of Mobley is an advantage for the team.
2. Who is the 5th Starter?
We mentioned it a bit above, does Ethan Anderson get the start in the rivalry game, or does Andy play the size matchup and start Agbonkpolo, White or Dixon-Waters. As much as I would love to see EA on the court to set a physical tone, I think Andy has to start one of the longer wings. Agbonkpolo is among the fastest and most athletic players on the team, and if he can slow down Jaquez or Bernard, it is a victory for the Trojans. I think Peterson will be assigned Juzang to start, and Drew has earned the assignment. Isiaiah White has played with more energy and an edge since returning from the covid pause, and he should be an enforcer in this one. Dixon-Waters and Kobe Johnson play tough defense, and have learned the scheme. Andy can go with his best 7 or really play this out and go 10-12 deep, it is simply a function of feel and intuition, and I trust Enfield.
3. Does Harrison Hornery see minutes?
The 6’9” freshman sparked a huge comeback against Pacific on Tuesday, draining 3 threes to bring USC back from a double digit deficit. Will Andy get the Australian in the game to bring a new element to the Trojan offense? His entry into Tuesday’s game was a Hail Mary, and he made Andy look like a genius. Will lightning strike twice for the Harrison?
4. Can USC put together 40 minutes of solid basketball?
I still do not think we have seen the Trojans play their best game. This team has been incredibly streaky, often relying on one-on-one offense to get points. Far too often the offense becomes static, and USC falls into long scoring droughts and turnover ridden basketball. USC cannot do this tonight and expect to win. If both teams bring their A game, I think the Trojans will win. Neither team can afford to execute at half capacity and expect positive results. Andy has the luxury of depth to have a short leash on any given player, and I do not think he will shy away from the Freshman if he believes they are ready. A sold out Galen Center (although I have no idea what the split will be), should provide energy to both sides but it can also cause sloppy basketball. Time will tell!
No current member of the USC team has lost to UCLA, and I expect that fact to remain after tonight’s game. If the Trojan defense remains stout and USC is able to convert some early threes, the Trojans can run away with this one. USC should have a significant advantage inside, and Goodwin/Morgan will be able to clean up the offensive glass with some frequency. Extra possessions and extra passes will be crucial for USC. That being said, UCLA did not make it to the final four by accident last year, they deploy a never say die attitude, and have a tendency to lock in when they need both stops and scores. I think USC rises to the occasion and gives the home crowd something to celebrate tonight.
Trojans win this one by 6!
Side prediction, I fully expect to see Lincoln Riley at halftime surrounded by members of the team, firing up the crowd for the fall and the second half!
I am not sure I have been this excited for a regular season game in a long time!
No live tweeting from this one, only trash talk and cheering from me!