UCLA men’s basketball will take on its crosstown rival Saturday night in a game chock-full of playoff implications.
The Bruins are third in the conference standings and will need to win their final five games to continue putting pressure on the Arizona Wildcats and the Oregon Ducks, while the Trojans are looking to bolster their case for the postseason by adding another top-10 win to their resume.
USC has won its last four games against UCLA, three last season by double digits and a 84-76 win at the Galen Center in January, and are looking for the regular-season sweep for the second straight year this weekend.
Here’s how the Daily Bruin beat writers – TuAnh Dam, Derrek Li and Matt Cummings – think the Bruins will fare this weekend.
TuAnh Dam, Sports editor
Don’t expect UCLA to have another sub-par performance against USC.
Everything was in place for the Trojans’ biggest win of the season back in January.
The Bruins were physically worn out from a long stretch of conference play, they’d just dropped a crucial game to the Arizona Wildcats and they needed the break mentally.
All that added up to 17 turnovers for the Bruins, including seven from freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.
Since then, it’s been a resurgence for UCLA, especially for Ball.
Ball willed UCLA to victory in a rematch against Oregon, making big shots down the stretch and shutting down forward Dillon Brooks.
He’ll be key on the defensive end, especially against the Trojans’ zone. But the key players in this game will be the bigs – freshman forward T.J. Leaf and junior center Thomas Welsh.
Leaf will match up with USC forward Bennie Boatwright, who missed some games with a knee injury, and also team up with Welsh to exploit the openings in the paint against a smaller Trojan team.
USC lured UCLA into a trap last time with the zone defense, but it shouldn’t work this time.
Lightning rarely strikes twice and don’t expect to see it Saturday, especially not at Pauley Pavilion.
Derrek Li, Daily Bruin senior staff
Yes, it’s a rivalry game and yes, UCLA is seeking revenge after dropping the first game of the matchup at the Galen Center, but this game shouldn’t be close.
By any metric outside of its 21-5 overall record, USC isn’t an elite team. It’s slotted in at No. 59 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin, sits outside of the AP Top 25 poll, sports a 8-5 conference record and doesn’t really do anything particularly well.
The Trojans rank 47th in the nation in offensive efficiency and 107th in defensive efficiency. They are however the No. 6 team in college basketball in blocks.
So how did USC beat UCLA last time around? By overwhelming a tired team with its speed and athleticism. The Trojans forced 17 turnovers and confounded the normally dynamic Bruin offense with some aggressive zone defense.
Now that UCLA has gotten more chances to work on penetrating a zone and has had six days of rest since the last game, it should be ready to handle what tripped it up at USC.
Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday said that as long as they take care of the ball, they’ll be fine. Freshman guard Lonzo Ball took responsibility for all the turnovers, saying that as the point guard he couldn’t figure out the defense early enough and promised that the rematch will be much better.
Junior center Thomas Welsh said he should have flashed into the middle of the zone to create openings around him, and coach Steve Alford said the biggest reason for the loss was how tired the team looked.
Sounds like a team that knows exactly what it needs to do to take care of business at home.
Matt Cummings, Daily Bruin senior staff
Last month’s matchup with USC didn’t go so well for UCLA. The Bruins struggled mightily to crack the Trojans’ extended 2-3 zone, turning the ball over 17 times en route to an 84-76 loss at the Galen Center.
But UCLA has shown improvement in its four games since then, ratcheting up its defensive intensity while also rebounding from the USC loss to look once again like the nation’s best offense. The Trojans are stronger as well, buoyed by the return of 6-foot-10 forward Bennie Boatwright, who has averaged 16.8 points in his four games back from a knee injury.
It will be interesting to see when and how often USC employs the zone that stifled UCLA in the teams’ previous meeting. With Boatwright back, the Trojans don’t have the same size issues that they did two and a half weeks ago, but considering the effectiveness of the zone back in January, it might merit a look.
On the whole, the Bruins are the better team. The January loss at USC represented by far the worst performance of the season for UCLA’s otherworldly offense. There’s little reason to expect senior guard Bryce Alford to struggle as much as he did in that outing, when he produced a season-low three points. Or to expect Lonzo Ball to rack up seven turnovers, as he did at the Galen Center in January.
Coach Steve Alford seemed aware after that loss of what he’d done wrong, regretting that he largely abandoned the Bruins’ traditional two-big-man lineup in favor of their four-guard unit.
So if USC does go back to the zone that proved so frustrating in January, UCLA should be ready. And if the Trojans don’t, well, then they’re simply a weaker team without any tactical gimmick to give them the upper hand.
KenPom.com gives the Bruins an 85 percent chance of winning this game, and I have no reason to disagree.