COLUMN: Upcoming game vs. UCLA will show USC basketball’s worthiness

USC men’s basketball’s win over UCLA at home last month prompted nothing short of euphoria for Trojan hoops fans. It was the perfect storm: Not only had the Trojans toppled their archrivals, but it was also the fourth straight win over UCLA, a top 10 team with national championship aspirations.

Coupled with football’s back-to-back blowout wins over the Bruins in 2015 and 2016, the win marked a sudden spike in interest in men’s basketball, a spike high enough to garner a rarely seen sellout crowd of 10,258 at the Galen Center.

Given the state of the two programs — USC is up-and-coming and still trying to find consistent footing in the Pac-12, while UCLA is stacked with talent across the board — it is a little strange how dominant the Trojans have been over their crosstown rivals; if they beat the Bruins on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, they will have their longest win streak over UCLA since 1943.

But anyone expecting it to be a breeze should be forewarned. The Bruins seem to have awoken and rediscovered that they are, indeed, good at basketball — and it might have been the Trojans’ win last month that provided the spark.

Since losing 84-76 to USC on Jan. 25, the Bruins have cruised past four opponents — they blew out Washington State and Oregon State, dropped 107 points on Washington and followed it up by toppling No. 5 Oregon — climbing back to the No. 6 ranking nationally.

“The USC game kind of woke us up, put us back in [our] place and we’ve been playing better basketball ever since,” UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball told the Los Angeles Times.

Their win over the Ducks last Thursday did enough to quiet any doubters about whether the Bruins were ranked too high. They overcame a 19-point deficit, with their dynamic offense (which averages 91.9 points per game and leads all of college basketball) roaring to life and young phenoms from Aaron Holiday to Ball stepping up and hitting clutch shots.

It was Ball who iced the game with an insane, Steph Curry-like step-back 3-pointer from well beyond the arc, the kind of shot that makes you wonder how it’s fair for a 19-year-old to do these things with a basketball.

Two days later, USC had its chance at Oregon at the Galen Center, but couldn’t pull off the upset despite taking a brief lead in the second half and keeping the score close down the stretch.

While the Trojans losing to a better team was no surprise, the way they lost was more noteworthy. They shot themselves in the foot, committing 17 turnovers, missed open shots and couldn’t seem to inbound the ball properly.

Their respective results against Oregon are indicative of what sets USC and UCLA apart right now. The Bruins have a stockpile of NBA-caliber talent, capable of unleashing an offensive tirade at any moment, while the Trojans have a strong roster — albeit nowhere near the talent that UCLA possesses — but lack in consistency and experience.

In a few ways, any hype that USC now “owns” UCLA in basketball is a bit overblown. Their 3-0 season sweep over the Bruins last season came in a down year for the school in Westwood, a campaign that saw UCLA drop five straight games late in the season and missed the NCAA Tournament entirely after two straight appearances in the Sweet Sixteen. This was a team with Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton doing everything, a team that didn’t yet have top recruits TJ Leaf or Ball or a more-developed Holiday.

Now, this is a team leading the nation in scoring with six players averaging double figures, shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from 3-point range. Those are monster stats, by any account.

That’s not to say the Trojans should be discredited for their recent stretch of success against UCLA, especially the home win last month that is arguably the biggest in head coach Andy Enfield’s tenure to date. They executed to perfection, spreading the floor, knocking down shots and stifling the Bruins’ dynamic offense with a zone defense that prevented big men Thomas Welsh and Leaf from making an impact.

They also forced 17 turnovers from UCLA, including seven from Ball alone, as the freshman star could not make his usual impact.

We’ll find out on Saturday if the Bruins adjust, or if the Trojans are simply their Achilles’ heel. We’ll see if the Trojans learned from their mistakes against Oregon, if they can get through this brutal stretch of conference play — they face No. 5 Arizona next Thursday to wrap up three consecutive games against top-10 opponents — with at least one statement win.

It would not be a shocker if the Trojans suffer a blowout loss on Saturday against a hungry, rolling Bruins squad that won’t be as lackluster and careless as it was at the Galen Center last month. But, just as that game was a pleasant surprise, this one could be too.

In the long run, this matchup doesn’t mean a lot. Both teams will probably make the NCAA Tournament: UCLA as a high seed who some will pick to win it all in their brackets, USC as a lower seed aiming to catch fire and make a run up the bracket.

Nonetheless, it is USC versus UCLA, a rivalry no matter the sport or scenario. And though UCLA looks better on paper and USC’s recent edge in the crosstown matchup may not be that relevant, we know this to be true: The Bruins don’t run L.A. hoops — at least, until they can beat the Trojans.

Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs on Fridays.