UCLA Game Preview
The tagline for this site reads "a place for the unabashedly biased USC Basketball Fan," and I acknowledge that my view of USC sports in largely seen through Cardinal and Gold colored lenses. I was born a Trojan, and vividly remember attending basketball games at the Sports Arena and watching road games on TV ( Adam Spanich's 6 points in 2.8 seconds against Oregon in 1999 is still thought to be the most amazing comeback in sports history, we watched it live). My father attended USC, where he was a member of the Freshman basketball team in 1965. In fact, in his office, he keeps a framed copy of the game program from their game against UCLA. The program is flipped to the dueling rosters, my father and his teammates listed on one side, the Bruins on the other, featuring Power Memorial Center, and future NBA all-time scoring leader Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). I grew up hearing stories about the dynasty that was UCLA Basketball under John Wooden, and could probably rattle off their long list of All-Americans based on lore alone.
While I respect UCLA's storied history, it does not mean that I have to like them!
When USC takes the floor for the regular season finale this afternoon, there will be a lot on the line for both teams. First and foremost, the winner of today's game will remain in position for a shot at the conference championship and the #1 seed in the Pac12 Tournament. The Trojans enter Saturday's contenst 14-5 in confernece, narrowly followed by the Bruins at 13-5. Oregon sits atop the Pac at 13-4 with a Sunday night contest with rival Oregon St. as their only remaining contest. Due to Covid shutdowns andsubsequent game cancellations, the top 3 teams will end the regular season having all played a different number of conference games. On Wednesay, the conference announced that winning percentage would serve as the tie breaker. It becomes quite simple, with an Oregon loss in Corvalis, the winner of the Crosstown Showdown will take home the regular season Crown.
Beyond the implications in the standings, this game will provide a huge opportunity for Trojan bragging rights. The Trojans have won three in a row against the Bruins, and are looking to make a statement to both the national media and recruits that the storied Bruin program is not what it used to be. While neither program has climbed to national prominence in the last few years, Coach Enfield has put together an impressive roster of NBA players in the past few years. Former Trojans De'Anthony Melton, Jordan McLaughlin, Chimeze Metu, Kevin Porter Jr. and Onyeka Okongwu join have all entered the league in the 4 years, and Evan Mobley's selection will be the Trojans third first round pick in as many years (Porter and Okongwu). For comparison sake, UCLA has had just 1 first rounder since 2017. NBA draft selections are by no means an indicator of guarenteed success, but they do serve as a benchmark for how a coaching staff is able to both recruit and develop talent, and this is not lost on recruits. UCLA's history will always provide an inherent advantage recruiting-wise, but the gap has closed dramatically in the past few years.
As far as tonight's game is concerned, the Trojans will once again enter as the favorite. The Trojans size and depth present certain matchup nightmares for UCLA Coach Mick Cronin. The Bruins are coming off consecutive loses for the first time this year after dropping road games to Colorado and Oregon.
In the first meeting of the two teams, the Trojans soundly defeated UCLA 66-48 after holding the baby Bears to 33.9% shooting and just 3-19 from beyond the arc. If UCLA is going to compete tonight they will need to rely on their balanced scoring attack. All of UCLA's starters average over 10 points per game, with Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang leading the team with a smidge over 14. The Bruins trot out PG Tyger Campbell, Center Cody Riley, and three 6'6" Forwards in Juzang, Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez. It is worth noting that Cody Riley did not play in the first meeting, and will certainly be a welcomed sight inside as the Bruins try to slow down Evan, Isaiah and Goodwin inside.
Riley, a 6'9" Junior, will have to play disciplined yet physical interior defense to stop the Trojans from getting easy looks near the basket and cleaning up on the offensive glass. Behind Riley, sophmore Kenneth Nwuba and early enrollee Mac Etienne will get the majority of minutes. If the Bruins can disrupt the USC bigs and keep them off the glass they will have an opportunity to upset the Trojans.
The Trojans size on the perimeter matches up favorably against UCLA. The status of Isaiah White is unknown for this game as he left Wednesday's matchup with an apparent leg injury. If White is unable to go, I suspect the Trojans will turn to rangy swing-man Max Agbonkpolo to disrupt the Bruin wings. Another Trojan to keep a close eye on will be PG Ethan Anderson. The rivalry has brought out the best in EA as he has averaged almost 13 points per game in his 3 games against the Bruins, including a career high 19 in this year's first game.
Again, on paper, this is a game the Trojans should win by double digits. The Bruins have weapons and good balance in their starting five and it will require a strong defensive effort from the Trojans. If USC can limit UCLA's 3 point opportunities, I like our chances! On the other side of the court, I suspect the Bruins will deploy a zone defense to keep Riley out of one on one situations with Evan, and it will be up to the guards to force a change with their outside shooting. Do not be surprised to see Noah Baumann get some more minutes today as he can catch fire in the blink of an eye against what I presume will be zone defense hellbent on trying to stop the Mobley brothers.
Many of these players grew up playing with or against each other, and there will be added intensity because of it. An empty Pauley Pavillion is an advantage for the Trojans, and I think Coach Enfield will have the team ready to finish this amazing regular season on a high note, Trojans 72-61.