After losing at home to Arizona last Saturday, UCLA (19-2, 6-2) fell outside the top five in the AP poll for the first time in eight weeks. Meanwhile, USC (17-4, 4-4) received votes for the ninth straight week. The two teams were part of an elite corps of six that finished non-conference play undefeated. With UCLA off to its best start since the 2006-07 season — which saw them reach the Final Four — and USC off to its best start since 1971-72, Angelenos have been anticipating Wednesday’s game for quite some time. In fact, tickets sold out nearly one month ago.
The Trojans will need to feed off the home-crowd energy delivered by 10,000-plus fans, including 1,500 raucous students. USC has won 27 of its last 31 home contests, but UCLA excels on the road, and it will surely bring a sizeable contingent of fans to the Galen Center, too. The Bruins are 4-1 away from home this season, with their sole loss coming from a buzzer-beater miracle at Oregon.
In UCLA’s rare losses, it has allowed 92.5 points per game. USC has scored 93 points three times this season — once in an overtime victory — but the Trojans average 69.9 points per game in conference play.
Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy ranks UCLA 127th in defensive efficiency, as the team has allowed 80.6 points per game in Pac-12 play. However, the Bruins have hid their defensive deficiencies behind one of the best scoring offenses in the nation. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has a repertoire of skilled guards on his team, as well as six double-digit scorers.
The Bruins share the ball better than all of their conference foes. Their 22.3 assists-per-game is the highest mark in the Pac-12. Freshman prodigy Lonzo Ball leads the conference with 8.0 assists-per-game, and the guard’s ball-handling skills are unparalleled. He has maintained a 3.58 assist/turnover ratio this season — a full-point better than all other point guards in the league.
No one scores more prolifically on UCLA than the coach’s son, senior guard Bryce Alford. He leads the Pac-12 in 3-pointers (71), and four Bruins, including Alford, shoot better than 43 percent from beyond the arc. There aren’t many all-around threats like UCLA freshman T.J. Leaf, who is second in the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage. The 6-foot-10 big man plays similarly to USC’s own, sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright. Leaf rebounds, passes and scores, averaging 16.7 points, 3.2 assists and 8.7 rebounds on the season.
USC’s defense faces a tall order in slowing Leaf and company, especially without Boatwright and potentially redshirt senior forward Charles Buggs, who sat out Sunday night with a sore left knee. The Trojans will probably spend much of the game in their zone defense to solve the tricky individual
matchups UCLA poses.
“We’re doing a good job defensively this year,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “We’ve been inconsistent this year, but we play hard. We block shots. We steal the ball. We play small. We play big. We’ve got a special group here.”
Boatwright was originally expected to miss 6-8 weeks after injuring his knee against San Diego in November, but eight weeks later, he continues to sit. The coaching staff expects him to return to full practice soon — hopefully within a week or two.
“Our coaching staff is thrilled to be 17-4 without Bennie,” Enfield said. “The 327th most experienced team in the country has played beyond its years.”