Eleven. As far as national championships go, that number breathes rarified air. Very few schools can boast 11 national championships in all sports combined, but two Los Angeles powerhouses own 11 titles within a single program — USC in football and UCLA in basketball.
Long heralded as the respective football and basketball schools of the West Coast, USC and UCLA each take tremendous pride in upsetting the other in its bread-and-butter sport. Last year, USC swept the two sports with a win at the Coliseum and a 3-0 record in basketball. The last time that happened was in the 2009-10 season, but the basketball teams only met twice that year. Before last season, the last time USC basketball won three games against UCLA was the 1953-54 campaign.
One must go back even further to find the last time USC took four straight games in the crosstown series. On Wednesday night, the Trojans have an opportunity to accomplish that for the first time in 75 years.
But this year’s UCLA team looks a lot different than last year’s.
“Their offense is exceptional [given] the way they share the ball and the pace they play at,” head coach Andy Enfield said.
The eighth-ranked team in the nation (dropping from No. 3 after a loss to Arizona on Saturday), UCLA has a firecracker offense that averages 93 points per game — aided by a whopping six players who average double-figure points per game. The Bruins also have a supremely talented freshman class led by guards Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.
“Even though they’re our rival, we’re not going to go out of our way to watch their games,” junior guard Elijah Stewart said. “I’ve got a lot of homework at ’SC, so you kind of look at the standings, but you don’t go out of your way to watch games.”
This year, the Trojans find themselves in familiar territory as underdogs against their Westwood foes. But in this rivalry, anything can happen. In 2013, USC ended a four-game skid against the Bruins in overtime at the Pauley Pavilion with a 75-71 victory under interim head coach Bob Cantu. UCLA standout Shabazz Muhammad, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA, had a monster game, but USC’s guard play held the Bruins to 2-of-19 from 3-point range.
Prior to last season, USC’s last victory against UCLA at the Galen Center came in 2011, when NBA star Nikola Vucevic wore No. 5 in Cardinal and Gold. The 7-footer dropped 20 points on the Bruins and became the 16th overall pick with the Philadelphia 76ers that spring .
A Trojan victory on Wednesday night would break a nine-year stretch during which USC has not defeated a top-five ranked opponent. Lo and behold, their last win against such a team came against No. 4 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in 2008. The game featured several future NBA talents including Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Taj Gibson and O.J. Mayo. Yet even in a game with such adept players, emotions ruled.
“We were so caught up, and our emotions took over,” then-UCLA head coach Ben Howland said after the loss. “We made some bad decisions. I can’t remember us ever being like that in the last few years.”
Though Love notched a double-double, his team went scoreless in the last two minutes and let the Trojans escape with their third win in 13 previous attempts in Westwood. USC freshman Davon Jefferson credited the win to a prophetic dream his mother had: His mom dreamed that they won and that Jefferson played well. He actually did end up playing exceptionally, scoring a career-high 25 points, including the team’s last eight. The Trojans finished the 2008 season with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, while the Bruins marched all the way to the Final Four.
Wednesday’s game emanates a faint and distant sense of déjà vu. The Bruins have a similar agenda in 2017 as they did in ’08. Anything less than a Final Four would be a disappointment for the second highest-scoring offense in the nation. The Trojans have a pair of freshman guards, Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton, who have risen to starting roles. If they can emulate the success of Jefferson and Mayo, then USC will stand a chance.
“It’s the Pac-12, so anyone can beat you on any given night,” Mathews said.
The Trojans will have a full house behind them, full of energy. The game sold out over one month ago when both teams were undefeated. But USC is not letting rivalry emotions defeat their routine.
“We’re looking forward to a sold-out crowd on Wednesday night and competing against a top-ranked team,” Enfield said.
“Every night it’s a grind,” he added about Pac-12 play.
Enfield and his team are focused on one opponent at a time. The next one just happens to bring decades of historic rivalry into the Galen Center.