On Saturday, the Trojans will venture to Westwood for a fight against perennial rival UCLA. The Bruins (15-7, 6-4) stand in fourth place in the Pac-12, two games behind the second-place Trojans (17-6, 8-2) and three behind conference leader Arizona.
Like the Trojans, the Bruins faced a slew of bad press in the offseason. The team notoriously garnered the attention of national media after President Donald Trump intervened to coordinate the release of three freshmen who were arrested in China after shoplifting from three stores, including a Louis Vuitton store. One of those freshmen, forward LiAngelo Ball, has since left the team to play in Lithuania. The other two, forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, remain at UCLA, but are suspended for the season.
After losing guard Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf to the NBA Draft last spring, UCLA looked forward to its influx of frosh talent. Even without LiAngelo Ball, Riley and Hill, the Bruins still feature two of the best freshmen in the Pac-12. Kris Wilkes, a 6’8” guard, is second on the team in scoring (13.8 points per game) and rebounds (5.4 per game), and freshman guard Jaylen Hands, an athletic 6’3” guard, is fourth on the team in scoring (11.2 points per game) and assists (3.1 per game).
Now adding to the lineup sophomore guard Prince Ali, junior guard Aaron Holiday and senior center Thomas Welsh, UCLA has one of the most menacing offenses in the Pac-12. All five starters average nearly 10 points per game. Welsh, second in the conference in rebounding, averages a double-double. Holiday, who averages 19 points per game and 5.3 assists per game, ranks in the top five of the conference in each of those categories.
As a team, UCLA averages 83 points per game. They rank in the top half of the conference in every major offensive and defensive category. In other words, Saturday’s game will be USC’s toughest test thus far in conference play.
Moreover, UCLA will have home court advantage. The Pauley Pavilion, one of college basketball’s most iconic venues, is always a hostile environment for visitors, and it is even worse for the Trojans.
Before USC games, UCLA fans of all ages flock to Pauley hours before tip-off to heckle the Trojans as they walk from the bus to the court.
“I don’t remember one pleasant time ever going to Pauley,” senior guard Elijah Stewart said “You pull up and there’s a big line of blue just waiting at your bus.”
A lot is at stake for both teams as they jockey for postseason positioning. Plus, the conference title is still at stake. Each team will face Arizona once this month.
For UCLA, it will be sweet to earn a game in the standings against their crosstown rivals, but for USC, this game could be a statement.
Although the Trojans have won six games in a row, their longest conference win-streak since 1992, all of those wins have come versus middle-of-the-road teams. A victory over Stanford, with whom USC split the season series 1-1, is USC’s best conference win. However, that isn’t saying much as the Cardinal stands in fifth place with a 5-4 record.
Winning at Pauley would boost the Trojans’ confidence and establish them as legitimate Pac-12 contenders before they embark on next week’s challenging road trip to Arizona.