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March 14, 2008

Cross-town battle at Staples Center

Strangely enough, this will be the first time that the Trojans meet the Bruins in the Pac-10 Tournament since it resumed a few years ago. USC is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, and UCLA is very close to having a #1 seed locked up, so the stakes aren't all that high. But the Trojans can move up the seedings ladder with a second victory over UCLA. I think the Trojans could max out at a four seed if they win the conference tournament. So let's look at the match-up.

What Happened in Game One

USC shocked UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, 72-63. The Bruins led by as many as nine in the first half, but the Trojans closed to within a point at halftime. Early in the second half, O.J. Mayo helped his squad race to a seven point lead, only to see the Bruins regain the lead about halfway through the second stanza. USC tied the game without 3:00 to go, and finished the game on a 12-3 run to get the win. Davon Jefferson had a huge game with 25 points and nine rebounds. Mayo chipped in 16 points and four assists. Josh Shipp led the Bruins with 21 points, inclduing 5-10 three pointers. Kevin Love had 18 points and 12 rebounds, but he only made 6-15. Also of note, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata-Real both were injured in the second half, and did not return.

What Happened in Game Two

This time it was the Trojans who were on the short end of the injury bug, as Daniel Hackett and Marcus Simmons were unable to go. UCLA took advantage and pulled out a 56-46 victory. UCLA led by eight points at the half, only to watch USC inch back into the game in the second half. The Trojans pulled within three points late in the second half behind some great defense, but UCLA finished this time. Mayo had a disastrous game, scoring only four points and turning the ball over ten times. Taj Gibson kept USC in the game with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Dwight Lewis notched his second double digit scoring game against the Bruins with 16 points. UCLA was led by Darren Collison's 14 points, and Kevin Love contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds.

A Refresher Course on the Bruins

UCLA is one of the elite teams in the nation. After struggling in their last three games to pull out three tight wins, they obliterated Cal yestrday to set up this match-up. On offense, the Bruins have several different sets. With Love in the post, they try to get him the ball down low, where he is very tough when he has position. They can bring him out to the wing as well, and he is a very good three point shooter. They will use him on the pick and pop, and he is a great entry passer down low. Russell Westbrook is the team's slasher, Josh Shipp its three point bomber. But to me, it's Collison who is their post important player. When he plays well, they are tough. He is a deadly three point shooter, is excellent with midrange runners, and is ultra quick.

The Bruins also have some valuable role players in guys like Mbah a Moute, Mata Real, and Alfred Aboya. James Keefe gives them some occasional outside shooting off the bench. If the team has one weakness, it's that they are not really deep at guard. They combat this by going big a lot.

On defense, the Bruins are a strict man to man to defense team. I have rarely seen them play any zone. They get up in your face and play pressure, and they try to funnel you to some of their shot blockers, especially Mata Real when he is in the game. They don't give up a lot of threes, but they can be taken off the dribble. They are a great rebounding team. If they have a weakness, it's that their defense is not as good as it has been in past years. In conference play, opponents shot 45%, which is kind of high. They make up for that by forcing more turnovers than anyone in the Pac-10, and by making about 48% of their shots in conference play, behind only USC.

Why Did USC Win Game One?

UCLA had 25 offensive rebounds in outrebounding USC, 39-30. The Trojans also had 19 turnovers. How did the Trojans win? First of all, they played outstanding defense. The Bruins only shot 33% for the game, and made only 31% of their three pointers. Meanwhile on the other side of the floor, the Trojans shot a blistering 61% by playing for good shots. They consistently took Bruin defenders off the dribble and dished for easy baskets. They had a season high 20 assists in the game. Every player but Mayo shot over 50%, and he was a respectable 5-12. Collison, Love, Westbrook, and Mbah a Moute combined to shoot 13 for 44! Losing Mbah a Moute and Mata Real didn't help UCLA either, especially because Jefferson torched the Bruins in the second half.

Why Did UCLA Win Game Two

Without Hackett and Simmons, USC only played six guys, and four of them played 40 minutes. The Bruins struggled from the field again, making only 34% of their shots, and 20% of their threes. Again, UCLA wracked up the offensive rebounds with 19, and won the overall battle 38-31. Again, the Trojans hurt themselves with 22 turnovers, ten from Mayo. This time, USC shot only 46%, and only made 18% of their threes. When you get killed on the glass and lose the turnovers battle in such a big way, those numbers won't be enough to win. UCLA took 19 more shots than SC because of the offensive rebounds and turnovers, and that was the difference between winning and losing.

Who Will Win The Third Time Around

The Trojans match up pretty well with the Bruins. UCLA has crushed SC on the glass, and they force the Trojans into a lot of turnovers. Conversely, USC has played outstanding defense against UCLA, mixing their regular man to man with some triangle and two zone. They have forced the Bruins into their weakness on offense: three point shooting. They are ninth in the Pac-10 in three point field goal percentage. The Trojans have also been able to get good shots because they have some match up advantages.

Shipp is the Bruins weak link on defense. USC has been able to attack him, usually with Dwight Lewis, who has averaged 13.5 points per game against UCLA. Jefferson is also a tough match up for UCLA, and the Trojans can for the most part neutralize Love with Gibson, who is also a good offensive player and a better defensive player.

The flip side is that Westbrook has done a great job on Mayo, especially in the last game. Mayo has made only 7-20 against UCLA. The flip side is that Mayo has done an even better job on Westbrook, holding him to 4-22 shooting. UCLA's answers: Collison is very tough to guard, and the Bruins have more depth.

Still, I think USC will win this game for several reasons. First, they are deeper than they have been since the very beginning of the season. With Hackett back, the Trojans are able to rotate Angelo Johnson from off the bench, and Simmons has seen more playing time of late. Plus, the Trojans have showed some trust in Keith Wilkinson who has played well of late. Second, the Trojans have been able to get good shots against UCLA because of their advantage when it comes to dribble penetration. Third, no one has defended UCLA better this season than USC.

But the most significant reason that I think will be the difference is USC's improved rebounding. Since the loss to UCLA, USC has outrebounded their last seven opponents by an average of eight per game. Two of those opponents were Cal and Stanford, who are much bigger than the Trojans. If the Bruins continue to shoot poorly, it won't be as easy for them to make it up with second chance points this time around. After cruising against a poor Cal defense yesterday, they won't find it as simple to get good shots.

UCLA is an elite team, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if they hammered the Trojans. I don't see it though. This is just one of those match up things. USC matches up well against Ben Howland's team, and Tim Floyd in my opinion has outcoached Howland in both games. This time, an improved rebounding effort will bridge the gap and send the Trojans to the tournament final.

Trojans-68, Bruins-65

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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