As the second half of Pac-10 play gets underway, the USC men’s basketball team (14-9, 6-5) finds itself with the chance to do what it has not done in six years — sweep UCLA in the regular season — and what it has never done — beat the Bruins at the Galen Center.
The Trojans, coming off of home wins against California and Stanford, will close their three-game homestand against the struggling Bruins (11-12, 6-5), who have posted their worst record after 23 games since 2003-2004, which was UCLA coach Ben Howland’s first season with the team. Despite the discrepancy in non-conference records, the two teams are in a five-way tie for second place in the Pac-10 at 6-5.
While the Trojans rank dead last in the Pac-10 and 276th in the nation in offensive efficiency, they have continued to find success because of their defensive prowess, which ranks first in the conference and third in the nation.
“[Defense is] our calling card,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “We’re not built to be anything but a defensive team. When we don’t play at the top of our game defensively, we lose. [That is] our formula for winning. We don’t score well enough to have letdowns on defense. I can’t emphasize it enough.”
That defense will be tested against UCLA’s spread-out offensive attack; despite averaging only 66.8 points per game as a team — third-worst in the Pac-10 — the Bruins are the only team in the conference to have all five starters average double figures in scoring. UCLA’s biggest threat offensively has come from its guard tandem of Michael Roll and Malcolm Lee, who average 13.6 and 12.3 points per game, respectively.
Yet, despite the balance, the Bruins have been unable to recapture the success of the past severla years and are in unfamiliar territory in the Pac-10. USC hopes to turn around a defense that struggled when the team traveled north earlier this season.
“When we get back on our defensive play, then we’re on the right track. It’s what we’re good at,” said senior guard Dwight Lewis.
The first matchup between the two teams this season came on Jan. 16 at Pauley Pavilion. Behind Lewis’ 24 points and sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic’s 19, the Trojans cruised to a 67-46 victory — their largest against UCLA since the 1944-1945 season and ever at Pauley Pavilion.
The Trojans did not let up defensively in the mid-January matchup, holding the Bruins to just 33-percent shooting and held the Bruins without a scorer above 12 points.
USC, despite not being eligible to play in the postseason because of self-imposed sanctions, still has an opportunity to win the Pac-10 regular season title. Both the Trojans and the Bruins sit one game behind first-place Cal, who traveled to Los Angeles to play the two teams last week. USC beat the Golden Bears 66-63 on Thursday night, while UCLA fell to Cal 72-58 on Saturday.