I can understand why some of us will work ourselves up, making tonight's matchup against Southern Cal "the biggest game of the season". I am just not seeing it that way. We could have said the biggest basketball game for us was last Saturday against Cal when we had to hold serve at home, yet we imploded after a good start. Similarly we had the biggest basketball game of the season almost two weeks ago, when took on a demoralized Oregon team on the road. We could have buried them after getting off to a solid start, yet we relaxed and failed to pounce.
Couple of weeks prior to that let down, we had the biggest basketball game of the season against Southern Cal when we had to hold serve at Pauley. We ended up humiliating the four letters. The game right before that could also have been the biggest basketball game of the season, when we had a great chance to sweep the Bay Area road trip after an emotional and lucky win against Cal. We didn't show up in that game either.
So no I don't really care about tonight's game being a "big" game. I will watch it just like any other game and get amused over Ben Howland using the same rotation all over again in his fear of not losing a ball game. Bruins have not showed up time and time again all season, when it really mattered. Even if they do show up to "compete" it will only amount to keeping this game close and competitive, as Howland's mentally soft players will most likely melt down the stretch.
What exactly is on the line tonight? Well for starters the Trogans will be chomping at the bit to get their first ever victory at Pauley East. We are also looking at near certainty of Ben Howland becoming the first head coach in Post Wooden era to lose three straight games against Just$C basketball program. Chew on that for a minute before you get fired up over tonight's game. More after the jump.
If you want to read up on the matchup heading into tonight's game, Bruin Report Online has a preview up. It is not behind any subscription firewall at the time I am blogging this, so here is Rob Carpentier's take on how the Bruins can "at least be competitive":
Since crushing the Bruins in January the Trojans have gone 3-3, beating teams they shouldn't and losing to teams they shouldn't. Perhaps that bodes well for the Bruins' chances. USC has been all over the map in terms of its play over the past few weeks and there's nothing in the way that USC is playing that should surprise anyone. The key for the Trojans has been the offense or lack thereof. USC has one bona fide scorer in senior Dwight Lewis (6'5" 215 lbs.) who torched the Bruins for 24 points in the first meeting, and then a collection of athletes who, while not skilled scorers, are far superior athletically to the Bruins. Outside of that great performance against the Bruins, though, Lewis has been pretty average this year. He leads the Trojans in scoring at 13.3 PPG, but the key is that Lewis is only shooting 31% from the three-point line. In the first meeting Lewis was able to hit early and often from deep because of the screens his teammates set against a very porous UCLA man defense. Once he gained his confidence it seemed as if Lewis couldn't miss. Against the UCLA zone Lewis may have more trouble scoring. It is important to note, though, that for UCLA to bother Lewis with its zone then the Bruins have to play with passion and focus. The Bruins need to know where Lewis is at all times. If UCLA lacks focus then UCLA could allow Lewis to have the kind of performance that Stanford's Landry Fields had last week when he scored 35 points against the Bruins. It can't be overstated that the Bruins can't allow Lewis to gain confidence right away or else they will be staring at a comparable outcome to what happened when these two teams met at Pauley Pavilion.
If the zone is played effectively then UCLA should be able to offset the other area that USC has an advantage; size. Trojan Coach Kevin O'Neill starts two of the best big men in the Pac-10 in junior Alex Stepheson (6'9" 235 lbs.) and sophomore Nikola Vucevic (6'10" 240 lbs.). Stepheson is a physical brute who really didn't do anything outstanding in the first UCLA/USC game. He rebounds well and scores when he's around the basket, but a zone defense can specifically neutralize a player like Stepheson fairly easily. The danger-man is Vucevic. While he isn't a deep shooting threat he is very good out to about 15 feet. That means he could be the "zone-buster" rather than an outside shooter like Lewis. One of the weak spots in any 2-3 zone is in the so-called "short corner" that sits in the space between the low, middle defender and the two low, wing defenders. It is in this space that Vucevic can excel. That means that UCLA will need to be active defensively along the baseline and that may mean seeing more of Tyler Honeycutt at the ‘4" and a bit less of Nikola Dragovic. That doesn't mean that Dragovic's minutes are going to drop to 15 minutes, but it does mean that Coach Ben Howland may be forced to go to extreme lengths to play effective defense against the Trojans. If Vucevic is given any space along the baseline then he will burn the Bruins. He is coming off an 18 point 14 rebound performance against Stanford and is more than capable of doing the same to the Bruins.
Stepheson and Vucevic aren't the only reasons that USC has a size advantage in this game. Senior Marcus Johnson (6'6" 210 lbs.) and sophomore Marcus Simmons (6'6" 200 lbs.) both play bigger than their size precisely because of their athleticism. Johnson helped the Trojans to own the boards in the first meeting while Simmons can be used as a lockdown defender.
All of that simply deals with the defensive end of the floor for the Bruins. USC's defense presents the Bruins with a whole host of other issues. The first time these two teams met the Trojan defense completely shut down the Bruin offense. While some of that had to do with UCLA's lackadaisical effort, even had the Bruins brought their ‘A' game they still would have had trouble scoring against what is clearly the best defense in the Pac-10. UCLA doesn't have a single player on its roster that can take their respective Trojan off the dribble. That means that UCLA must screen and pass efficiently and quickly in order to get good shots. In order to do this expect the Bruins to run their motion offense almost exclusively. Further, UCLA must take their time on offense to look for the best shot possible. That means that Dragovic can't be taking deep ‘threes' ten seconds into the shot clock when the Bruins have no offensive balance.
Uh yeah, I am really going to hold my breath over that last comment. Speaking of the clown, the LA Times has a profile on the two Nikolas. I didn't really bother reading it after checking out the headline because I have no interest in caring about Ragovic. If you want to read up on him and the Nikola from the Trogans, here is the link.
Meanwhile, Jon Gold has posted a little Q&A with Ben Howland on the Daily News. Guess the only thing that I found interesting was how Howland is dead set on going back to total man-to-man next season:
DN: Was there any internal conflict about playing zone?
BH: No, but we should have done it sooner.
DN: Does zone now have to be part of the arsenal?
DN: So once you have the manpower, you're going back to man-to-man?
I do want us to go back to man-to-man defense but I wonder what is going to happen if Josh Smith doesn't lose weight, Zeke Jones turn out to be less than average, and we don't sign any high impact recruits rest of this season (which we are not going to). I would hope after this season Howland would be open to being flexible but guess we will have to find out.
Howland trotted out the same excuse about Jrue Holiday leaving early leaving a hole in the program, to which Gold failed to push back with the question about why he and his staff didn't anticipate that scenario, when it was obvious to rest of the world. Gold failed to ask him the question why Howland and his staff didn't bother to have other pgs on their recruiting radar early in the season, when it was apparent to many basketball observers that Holiday basically came by Westwood for a little pit stop, before riding into Philly.
Gold also didn't bother pressing Howland on one of the major issues - PTs for Lane and Moser - this season and ask him why he has continued to peddle Ragovic as a legitimate basketball player in his program. Then again, it is not surprising because too much to expect an inexperienced beat writer (who doesn't have a lot of perspective on UCLA athletics) to ask the poignant and precise question concerning the program.
Don't think we are going to get any answers tonight either. I expect a basketball game in which we are going to be bunch of dead men walking. As I have said along, don't care much for a "hard fought effort" and losing a game, when we are going to see the head coach doing the same inexplicable thing over and over again. The tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 pm PST. The open thread will go up half an hour before it.