Rivalry game needs a Valentine’s Day boost

The first thing I noticed when USC released its men’s basketball schedule was that odd date for the Trojans to host UCLA.

Hey, isn’t that Valentine’s Day?

The scheduling didn’t make sense at first, but now I think I get it.

This is a rivalry game that needs to be shown some love.

Based on the hype for Sunday’s contest, you would hardly know this is a matchup between two teams who are part of a five-school logjam for second place in the Pac-10. But it’s understandable why there has been so little buildup to the season’s second showing of the teams.

Whatever mid-season momentum the Trojans had built up was sapped dry by self-imposed sanctions, effectively squashing any mass public interest in the program. And it’s well established that this UCLA team won’t be mistaken for any of the school’s past powerhouses.

The Pac-10 is increasingly looking like a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament — and in all likelihood, neither one of these schools is going to be that team.

But with no postseason in play for USC, the team has had to find alternate motivations to keep from derailing this season. As far as intrinsic value goes, beating a rival in the Galen Center for the first time has to rank pretty high.

Yes, for all those millions of dollars spent on the facility, the Trojans still haven’t had their golden moment at home against the Bruins — 0-3 in the last three years of hosting the Bruins at the Galen Center. And over the years, heartbreak has been present in all its forms.

Homecourt advantage · The Galen Center will host its fourth USC-UCLA men’s basketball game this Sunday but has yet to see a Trojan victory. USC is at 45-10 at the Galen Center against all other opponents. - Avi Kushlan | Daily Trojan

USC’s closest bout was its opening one. In 2007, the Trojans looked poised to capture that signature win at the Galen Center after Nick Young converted a four-point play. But Arron Afflalo sank a mid-range jumper with four seconds left to put USC back in its place.

The hype was ripe the following year, when the Trojans had already taken down UCLA at Pauley Pavilion entering the return trip to Galen. But a packed house watched USC’s supernova during a 56-46 drubbing that featured 10 turnovers from O.J. Mayo alone.

Even last year when the Trojans kept pace until the end, the Bruins proved to be too much down the stretch and won by four points on the heels of stellar outings by Darren Collison and Nikola Dragovic.

An all-encapsulating moment occurred during that game when UCLA forward Drew Gordon hit USC guard Daniel Hackett in the jaw with his elbow. No matter the process, the last three years of rivalry games at Galen Center have been an ongoing series of elbows to the face for USC.

“I don’t know if he did it on purpose,” Hackett said after the game, “but that’s USC-UCLA stuff.”

Unless the Trojans finish the regular season in first place in the Pac-10, this season will be forgotten by most because of the assured lack of postseason play. But if USC can beat the Bruins at the Galen Center, it would give the team an accomplishment no one can take away.

A win would also help fulfill that whole “if you build it, they will come” philosophy everyone had about popularizing USC basketball with this arena. Maybe the sport will never be fully embraced by the school, but fans need to have a reason to believe they won’t leave disappointed from the one game that’s well attended all year.

It’s easy to devalue the meaning of this game given that UCLA is but a shell of its former self. But the importance of this contest is as much about branding as it is about results.

You can drop nine figures on a basketball arena, but you can’t buy legitimacy.

With only so much to play for this year, the Trojans have to focus on building for the future. And a good way to start that construction project would be for the Trojans to get that first win against UCLA in their own building.

“Tackling Dummy” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Michael at middlehu@usc.edu.