No. 3 USC gearing up to host No. 1 UCLA

With its NCAA playoff position hanging in the balance in the season’s closing stages, the No. 3 USC men’s water polo team will try to topple No. 1 UCLA in the rubber match between crosstown rivals this Sunday.

T-Rex · Senior driver Rex Butler and the Trojans will face UCLA for the third time this season on Sunday. Butler has 32 goals so far in 2014. - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

T-Rex · Senior driver Rex Butler and the Trojans will face UCLA for the third time this season on Sunday. Butler has 32 goals so far in 2014. – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

The Trojans (18-3) and the Bruins (21-2) each hold one win over the other in the 2014 season series. The two sides’ first meeting on Sept. 21 ended with the Bruins handing the Trojans their first loss of the year 9-7 to eliminate USC from the Kap7 NorCal Classic. Their most recent meeting on Oct. 12 ended with the Trojans knocking off the Bruins 10-6 in Westwood on the way to winning the SoCal Tournament championship. Sunday’s battle for Los Angeles supremacy will take place at Troy, and while the two sides will not be fighting for a tournament title, their third meeting of the season could have significant implications on the NCAA championship tournament.

“This [game is] a little more important because we are tied one and one, and the team that wins this game will have an advantage in terms of head to head records when it comes down to selecting teams to the NCAA tournament,” Trojan head coach Jovan Vavic said. “We still have four very difficult games left in the conference, and other teams do too. So there’s still a lot of water polo left to play, and one loss here and there can really make a difference.”

Sophomore driver Nick Bell reiterated the weight of Sunday’s matchup within the conference containing the “Big Four” teams of NCAA men’s water polo.

“It’s definitely a very important game,” Bell said. “Three teams are going to go to the NCAA tournament in our conference, and right now we have the top four [in the nation]. The team who wins our conference goes to the NCAA tournament for sure. The next teams might end up tied at the end of the season, and it could go to the heads of the conference to decide who goes, so this game would be a big win for us.”

The Trojans bounced back from a down-to-the wire 11-10 loss to Stanford with emphatic wins over Loyola Marymount and Pacific last week, defeating the Lions and Tigers 19-7 and 11-6 respectively. Having been knocked down from the top spot in the rankings with the Stanford loss, the Trojans will look to resurge as they did in their SoCal tournament victory, which Vavic says was fueled by the team’s loss to the Bruins at the beginning of the season.

“You get more focused [after losing],” Vavic said. “When you win games, you get a tendency to relax and think you are too good. And when you lose, you look at your preparation with a more critical eye, and try to figure out how to do better.”

Defense can’t be stressed enough around the Trojan camp as the team aims to take down the top-ranked Bruins. USC will want to curb the efforts of Bruin utility Cristiano Mirarchi, who leads UCLA in scoring with 37 goals on the year, and center Gordon Marshall, who’s tallied nine goals through the Bruins’ last three games.

“The last time we played UCLA, we did a really good job on defense, so our coach is going to go back to what we did right, and we’re going to try to repeat that,” senior driver Kostas Genidounias said.

The battle for Southern California water polo is set to take place 7 p.m. PT Sunday at Uytengsu Aquatic Center.