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UCLA vs. USC Basketball Preview: A Challenge to Smith

USC's Coach called out Josh Smith who will face some tough defense against USC.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
USC's Coach called out Josh Smith who will face some tough defense against USC. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Ben Howland has said every game is a must win, arguably none more important until the Pac-12 than the USC game on Sunday. Why?

1. 50-0.
2. UCLA needs to start winning on the road and it is the key to winning the Pac-12. Beating USC is a key test.

Pac-12 road teams are 5-17 in conference games this season, and last week became roadkill Thursday as conference title leaders Washington, Stanford and California all lost road games at Colorado, Oregon State and Oregon, respectively.

It's never easy to win road games, but this year seems especially difficult as the .227 road winning percentage through the first two weeks of Pac-12 play is well below the .355 road winning percentage in conference games from last season. . . .

"At this point it feels like the Pac-12 is up for grabs so we need all these wins, especially the road games," guard Tyler Lamb said. "Those are going to very important for us."

Last season, UCLA went 5-4 in conference road games en route to a second place finish. League champion Arizona also went 5-4. Bruins coach Ben Howland predicted the the conference champion would have four or five losses this season, so UCLA (9-7, 2-2) will need to pile up some road wins in order to reach that goal.

3. USC is the kind of bad team that can give Ben Howland trouble. While they are horrid on offense, they are #11 in the country on scoring defense. Howland must beat USC that plays the kind of tough man to man defense he loves.

4. USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, maybe at the bar, was quoted in an article entitled "USC coach calls out UCLA's Josh Smith":

USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill respects UCLA's Josh Smith, but O'Neill also felt compelled to offer some unsolicited advice for the burly center before the Trojans play the Bruins on Sunday.

"I like Josh, I think he's a good player," O'Neill said after the Trojans' practice on Thursday, when asked how he thinks Smith is progressing this season. "But I would encourage anybody that's in Josh's physical condition that, if you want to play at the next level, he's got to lose weight and get himself in better shape to play."

. . .

O'Neill has talked about Smith before, saying in March of last year that he thought Smith had the most upside of any Pac-12 player. Asked about those comments specifically Thursday, O'Neill was non-committal.

"I thought he did," he said. "But it's dependent on one thing: He's got to get in shape. You can't play at the next level if you're not in shape."

If O'Neill's comments motivate Smith: great. Of course, this is UCLA at USC, no motivation should be needed. However, Smith's weight and conditioning has been an issue all season. However, Bruins players, including Smith on the topic say:

None of his teammates will say they wish Smith had come back for his second UCLA season in better shape.

Guard Jerime Anderson came closest Tuesday when he said, "Josh was a little bit behind, but now he's improving every game. He looks better at everything, he's a little bit more fluid, back to where he was at the end of last year."

Smith always deflects questions about his weight, but he did say that he has been a little disappointed in his performance so far.

"This was supposed to be a breakout year for me," Smith said. "But when I look at our league right now, there are a lot of good players but not a great player. There's still time for everyone to break out. I know what I have to do to become a better player. I don't have to feel like an Army workout every day. I just do what I have to do, watch what I have to eat. I'm working on it."

Back to USC. There is a reason that USC is the only Pac-12 team without a conference win so far this year despite having a very good defense:

USC has held 7 of its 17 opponents to their lowest scoring output of the season to date. Seven of the last 10 opponents have scored under 60 points for a 54.2 average in that stretch. Unfortunately, USC has scored under 60 points nine times in that stretch for an average of 51.7 points per game.

One of the reasons USC is so down is they can't make open shots. At their last game at home against Arizona, Kevin O'Neill commented on their shooting:

"I don't know how to explain it," O'Neill said. "It's ugly to watch."

Stat of the game: Twelve of the 15 3-pointers the Trojans attempted in Sunday's game qualify as wide-open 3's according to the team's charting system.

Of those 12, USC converted exactly one. The Trojans hit none of the other three for a seven-percent day from 3.

"I like our shots. We're getting a lot of open looks," O'Neill said. "You're hoping at some point they'll start to fall.

USC shot 29% against Arizona, who is not a good defense team and has no inside shot blockers. USC has shot 33, 34, and 38 percent in the other Pac-12 games this year. USC shoots under 40% for the year and is number 309 in FG% in the country.

USC has shot under 40 percent from the floor the last five games and have a 34.1 shooting percentage in that stretch (90-for-264). USC is 6-for-35 (17.1 percent) from three-point range the last three games.

Of course, UCLA has had many teams have career games from three, specifically, and shooting, generally, against them this year.

As far as individual players, the USC backcourt likes to shoot a lot. 5'7" PG Maurice Jones is averaging 13.5 attempts per game (5.4 from three) and is making them at a 34% clip. SG Aaron Moore went 1-10 against Arizona and is shooting 29% for the year (30% from 3). Small forward Byron Wesely almost qualifies as a marksman since he is shooting 37% but that is in part because he does not shoot from three. Did I mention this is not a good shooting team?

Inside the players can at least shoot a bit. Dewayne Dedmon is a raw seven footer who has not played much basketball (he did not play basketball until his senior year of high school) who has shown some flashes of ability. He is also very prone to foul trouble. The four is Aaron Fuller who is a red shirt junior and solid player.

O'Neill has never liked to play too many players. 7'1 James Blascyzk is the backup center. He fits well for USC since despite playing close to the basket, he only shoots 40%. 6'6" Garret Jackson also regularly plays. O'Neill may go 9 deep on Sunday but it is more a product of desperation.

Bottom line: UCLA must play with intensity the whole game because USC defense can frustrate any team and the SPTR will help the home team. There is no excuse for Howland who must win this game.

Go Bruins