Saturday, February 18, 2006

UCLA vs. USC - Game Preview

By Bruin Basketball Report

The No.14 ranked UCLA Bruins travel across town to face the USC Trojans for the 133rd, and last, meeting at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

USC is moving to their new arena, the Galen Center, in Fall 2006. The Sports Arena has been home for the USC Trojan basketball team since 1959.

Back in early February, the Trojans were riding high after a huge 77-70 upset victory over the Arizona Wildcats at home. They outplayed the Wildcats in every facet of the game, especially defensively, forcing Arizona into 22 turnovers.

After recording the win, USC had a record of 6-3 in the conference, good enough for second place and only one game behind UCLA. Suddenly, there was talk about the possibility of the Trojans playing in the postseason tournament.

But then things went from bad to worse quickly for USC (15-9, 6-7), who are now closer to an NIT rather than a NCAA postseason invitation.

First, the Trojans suffered a major let-down defeat to the last place Arizona St. Sun Devils, 68-65, then in the following Monday practice, they lost their best all-around player, sophomore Gabe Pruitt, to a left knee injury (out 3 weeks).

A struggling USC team now comes into the contest against UCLA with a three game losing streak after being swept by the Washington schools last week.

With Pruitt out, the scoring load has fallen on sophomore forward Nick Young and junior guard Lodrick Stewart. In the loss against Washington, both players increased their scoring contributions, but then against Washington St. on Saturday they combined on only 4 of 26 shooting.

In their first meeting together at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA routed USC, 66-45. The game was over early after the Bruins went on an 18-2 run in the opening minutes. UCLA held USC to only 27% field goal shooting.

"They took us out of our game early", USC head coach Tim Floyd said, "They were more physical and active." The Bruins outrebounded the Trojans 33-27 in the game.

Rebounding has been a problem area for the Trojans all season. In the last nine games, USC has been outrebounded by an average of 10 rebounds per game. In six of the nine games, opponents have reached double figures in offensive rebounds. They are last in rebounding in the Pac-10 with 29.1 rebounds per game.

One bright spot on the frontline for the Trojans is freshman forward RouSean Cromwell, who suffered a fractured right foot before the start of the Pac-10 season. He has been practicing with the team and may play on Sunday. Cromwell is a good rebounder and provides an inside presence; both of which the Trojans lack at this point.

USC’s offense relies on their perimeter game; they have taken the most three-point shots (264) in the conference and are hitting 37.5 percent on three-pointers, third best in the conference.

Sophomore forward Nick Young is the Trojans leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 17.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He is also hitting on 39.6 on three-pointers. Without a strong presence on the Trojan frontline, he has had to play power forward all season. Young is a tough, heady player who can shoot well from outside and slash into the middle to create his own shot.

Bruin senior forward, Cedric Bozeman will most likely get the assignment against the 6’6 Young. Bozeman’s combination of size and speed is a good defensive match-up against Young. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should also see time against Young as well.

Young has struggled against the Bruins. In his last two games against UCLA, he is shooting 4-20 for a total of only 8 points. "I've just got to go out there and have fun this week and look at it like I'm playing against Jordan [Farmar] or Arron Afflalo at the park."

Junior forward Lodrick Stewart is the third leading scorer for the Trojans, behind Young and Pruitt; he is averaging 12.3 points per game and shoots 41.1% from beyond the three-point arc.

UCLA’s Arron Afflalo will likely draw the primary assignment against Stewart, although other Bruin perimeter players will guard him as well. Michael Roll did an excellent job on Stewart in the team’s first meeting.

Both Young and Stewart will need to play their best games of the season in order for the Trojans to challenge on Sunday against the Bruins

Freshman guard, Russ Francis, has done a good job at the point guard position for the Trojans this year. Although he is only averaging 6.4 points and 3.8 assists per game, it’s his hustle on both ends of the court which have made people take notice of the 5’11 dynamo.

Francis was suffering from a deep thigh contusion in the team’s first meeting at Pauley. He is now at full strength and will give the Bruin’s Jordan Farmar a tougher time in this game.

UCLA (20-5, 10-3) has not played a game since their loss to Washington in Seattle on February 11th. It has been their longest break of the season.

Coach Ben Howland took advantage of the down time by working with his team on fundamentals and team basics. "We're working on skill development," he said. "We're working on executing better. We're working on our conditioning, and doing a number of things that I think will help us improve as we go into this final five-game stretch of the season."

The time off has been good for Jordan Farmar. He has suffered moderate sprains to both ankles this season. The injuries have limited his play in many games this season.

Against Washington, "I had problems pushing off”, Farmar said, “It affected my lift the entire game.” A healthy Farmar will go a long way in the success of the Bruin team heading into the tournament.

The Bruins are only averaging 66.2 points per game. Coach Ben Howland wants his team to run more when the opportunities present themselves to create more easy baskets in transition. “We pushed the ball up better at the beginning of the year” Howland said, “I want us to get back to there.”

The main reason the Bruins already have 20 victories this season, despite scoring in the mid-sixties, is their defense. Opponents are only scoring 59.4 point per game against UCLA - 1st in the conference; and thus subsequently the Bruins lead the Pac-10 in point’s differential with +6.8.

Even with star Gabe Pruitt playing in the last game, the Trojans were run out of Pauley Pavilion; without Pruitt, it doesn’t appear the situation is any better for the Trojans on Sunday. But coach Ben Howland is not taking any chances and stressing with his team the importance of every single game left in conference play.

"This is a huge game for us," Howland said. "It's going to be a very hard-fought battle, and our team clearly will understand that and know that by the time we get to Sunday."

UCLA enters the weekend tied for first place in the Pac-10 conference with the Cal Bears at 10-3. The Bears play the Arizona St. Sun Devils tonight in Berkeley.

Injury Update: Alfred Aboya suffered a mild strained groin injury in Thursday's practice. He was held out of practice on Friday and will be a game-time decision on Sunday against the Trojans.



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