The postseason hopes for USC men’s basketball fade a little more every week, but the Trojans still have two opportunities left to savor a win over their rivals in blue and gold. The first comes today, as the Trojans (8-13, 3-5 in Pac-12 play) take a quick trip on the I-10 to face the UCLA Bruins (16-5, 6-2) at a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion.
“These are the games we play for, with this environment and this excitement,” junior center Omar Oraby said about what will likely be a packed house for the 7 p.m. tipoff.
The Trojans are coming off a fruitless trip to Arizona, where they lost a 98-93 overtime thriller to Arizona State on Thursday before being crushed 74-50 by No. 8 Arizona on Saturday. USC came out flat against the Wildcats and set a season low for points scored, but aim to use the loss as a blueprint for what the Trojans need to do in order to pull the upset Wednesday night.
“I thought we were real stagnant (on offense) against Arizona and the ball didn’t drop,” USC head coach Bob Cantu said. “I want us to stay in attack mode. I want us to try to get to the rim, get to the foul line, be aggressive every time we’re coming down and recognize when the defense is back and when it’s not.”
After shooting 49.3 percent against the Sun Devils, the Trojans shot just 18-of-64 (28.1 percent) from the field against Arizona and struggled to find the easy shots that were so prevalent two nights before. The Trojans’ three starting guards, senior Jio Fontan, junior J.T. Terrell and sophomore Byron Wesley, shot just 5-of-26 from the field Saturday after combining for 60 points against the Sun Devils.
However, the Bruins’ fast-paced style means that the game is more likely to be a shootout than a defensive struggle. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in scoring with 77.1 points per game, but are also next to last in the conference in allowing 69 points per contest. Even after shooting a season-low 34.7 percent in an Arizona debacle of their own (a 78-60 loss to ASU on Thursday), UCLA leads the conference in shooting percentage at 46.9 percent. USC ranks 11th, shooting at a 42.5-percent clip.
For the Trojans to win, there needs to be massive improvement in two areas: Defense and big man play. A defense-first squad under former head coach Kevin O’Neill, the Trojans have allowed 79 points per game in Cantu’s four games at the helm.
Against Arizona, the team’s defensive effort ranged from mediocre to abysmal, as the Trojans fell behind quickly and never recovered.
“We gave them a lot of transition baskets and the game was over in the first five minutes,” Wesley said. “If we can limit [UCLA’s] easy baskets and make them earn every basket by playing hard defense, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Trojans are averaging 71.5 points per game with Cantu, but have just one win to show for it.
“We didn’t play any defense the last two games,” Oraby added. “We know we can score a lot of points, we just have to stop other teams.”
The Bruins fell out of the polls after their loss in Tempe but boast the nation’s most dangerous group of freshman scorers. Guard/forward Shabazz Muhammad is slowly living up to the tremendous hype that preceded his arrival in Westwood, and ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring with 18.2 points per game. Freshman guard Jordan Adams is also top 10 in the conference in scoring with 15.3 per game, while 6-foot-9 freshman guard Kyle Anderson provides an instant mismatch because of his guard-like skill in a tall frame.
Down low is where the other key to the Trojans’ success can be found. The Bruins’ third-leading scorer and de-facto starting center Travis Wear missed UCLA’s last game with a concussion, and it is unsure if he will suit up against the Trojans. Even if he plays, Wear and his twin, David, stand 6-foot-10 and are not known for being physical in the paint.
“I’m and bigger and stronger than them down low, and I can post them up,” Oraby said. “I think I’ll have the advantage in the low post.”
USC’s pair of high-upside 7-footers, junior forward Dewayne Dedmon and Oraby, didn’t score a point in the Arizona loss, but the Trojans need to play from the inside out in order to avoid following in the same steps of their gridiron brethren at UCLA.
The Trojans lost to the Bruins three times last year, including a season-ending defeat in the Pac-12 tournament. USC did, however, go 3-1 against the Bruins in the two seasons prior, including a January 2010 win in Westwood.