By Bruin Basketball Report
The UCLA Bruins make their inaugural visit to the Galen Center on Saturday to face the surging USC Trojans.
USC and UCLA split their series last season with each team winning its home game, the Bruins winning 66-45 on Jan. 18 and the Trojans winning 71-68 on Feb. 19.
After a sweep of the Oregon schools last week, the Trojans (14-4, 3-1) are in a four-way tie atop the Pac-10 and have quality wins over three ranked teams. They have surprised many with their early season play on both ends of the court.
Since Trojan Coach Tim Floyd was hired before the start of last season, he has stressed to his team good shot-selection and solid defense, and it appears his philosophy has finally taken hold with his players. The Trojans are shooting 48.8% from the field, and are holding opponents to just 35% shooting which ranks third-best in the nation.
USC has a good blend of underclassmen and experienced players in the starting line-up. In the past few games they have gone with a four-guard alignment on offense to take advantage of their athleticism on the perimeter and ability to take opponents off the dribble.
The Bruins have had trouble with their perimeter defense and keeping players in front of them. If they allow the Trojans, or any team for that matter, to easily dribble penetrate into the paint the Bruins will have a difficult time winning any game in the Pac-10 this season.
Defensively, the Trojans will alternate between a man-to-man and an aggressive match-up zone. UCLA has had problems all year executing their offense against the zone, and will need to be much quicker moving the ball on the perimeter and attacking the seams of the zone with quick dribble penetration.
With Josh Shipp injured with a slight hamstring tear, Michael Roll will get the start and his presence on the court may deter the Trojans from using their zone as often, still, expect the Bruins to be tested again if they can beat the zone.
The Trojans started the season with a number of question marks in the backcourt. With the tragic loss of standout guard Ryan Francis over the summer, they were left without a proven player at the point. Then Gabe Pruitt, a player they expected to help fill the void at point-guard, was ruled academically ineligible until December.
However, the Trojans have received significant contributions from two freshmen, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett, both who only gained eligibility right before the start of the season.
Taj Gibson (Fr, 6'9, 210) has been one of the big reasons for the Trojans success thus far. He is averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 65.7% from the field. He already has eight double-doubles on the season and has reached double figures in scoring 15 of 17 games.
The 21 year-old freshman is extremely active down low and is quick off his feet. An intimidating force in the low blocks, he is averaging 1.9 blocks per game including seven blocked shots against Oregon last week. However, Gibson tends to turnover the ball often (3.1) and is foul-prone at times.
UCLA's Lorenzo Mata will have quite a challenge keeping Gibson off the boards. Mata has struggled with inconsistency of late and has had a problem holding on to the ball down low. Alfred Aboya is perhaps a better match-up against Gibson physically, but Mata is due to rebound from his poor performances and may bother Gibson with his physical presence.
Although Gibson is only an adequate low-post scorer, look for the Bruins to double-down on him aggressively whenever he receives the ball inside in order to force a possible turnover.
With the reinstatement of Gabe Pruitt (Jr, 6'4, 170) to the team six games ago, the Trojans gained more experience in the backcourt. He is an athletic player who can hit from the outside and finish at the basket with the best.
While he is still adjusting to the point-guard spot and learning to help create shot opportunities for teammates rather than himself, he has helped the Trojans significantly cut down on their turnovers from 17.5 to just 12.3 per contest since his insertion into the starting line-up against Washington.
In one of the big key match-ups of the game, Darren Collison will likely start off defensively against Pruitt. He needs to do a good job sealing off Pruitt from penetrating into the paint, and just as importantly, Collison needs to use his quickness advantage to pressure Pruitt on the perimeter to make it difficult for him to get the Trojans into their offense and to create turnovers for easy Bruin transition baskets.
Nick Young (Jr, 6'6, 195) is leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points and is second in rebounds with 4.3 rebounds. Young has improved his shot selection significantly since last season and is shooting 53.8% from the field. He is also lighting it up from three-point distance shooting 45.2%. Young is also known for his toughness and athleticism and ability to score in traffic and off the dribble.
Although Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would be a natural match-up position wise, expect UCLA to defend Nick Young with Arron Afflalo to start the game. Afflalo has defended Young well in the past and does a good job in ball denial which is what you want to do against a multi-talented offensive player like Nick Young.
The Trojans like to run their offense through Young, and if Afflalo can stop him from getting the ball where he usually likes, it will help disrupt the USC offense from its normal flow.
Lodrick Stewart (Sr, 6'4, 210) is at another guard spot, he is second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points a game and averages 4.2 a game. A prolific three-point shooter, Stewart shoots 44.2% from beyond the arc. Against Oregon State last week, he made all six of his three-point shot attempts. The Trojans like to dribble penetrate and kick out to Stewart for the trey.
Michael Roll will likely get the defensive start against him. Although not the quickest player on the team, Roll's perimeter defense is underrated and he should do fine especially with help from his teammates. Against Oregon, Roll was at times matched up against Taquean Porter on the outside and did a good defensive job on the 5'6 guard.
Russell Westbrook should also see minutes at the shooting guard position alongside Darren Collison on Saturday. Westbrook had one of his finest game on both ends of the court against Oregon last week which had Howland second-guessing himself afterwards that he should have played the freshman more minutes in the Ducks game.
The fourth guard in the starting Trojan line-up is freshman Dwight Lewis (6'5, 190). He is a slashing type player who is averaging 6.2 points and 2.5 rebounds a game. He wasn't expected to get many minutes this season but has proven to be a reliable defender on the court. He is shooting only 38.7% from the field.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will likely guard Lewis to start off by default, but Lewis averages 20.2 minutes a game and then the Trojans usually go bigger with either Abdoulaye N'Diaye (Sr, 6'11, 230) or Keith Wilkinson (So, 6'9, 215) off the bench.
In addition to N'Diaye and Wilkinson off the bench, the Trojans have Daniel Hackett (6'5, 205) who started at point-guard prior to the return of Gabe Pruitt. The freshman is averaging 5.6 points and 3.4 assists a game and did a good job running the team although he has struggled shooting from the field. RouSean Cromwell (So, 6'10, 215) has played minutes this season mostly if Taj Gibson gets into foul trouble.
This will be a very tough game for the Bruins especially without their second-leading scorer Josh Shipp. If they expect to win this game on the road, they will certainly need to solve the Trojan's match-up zone, but ultimately, it will come down to how well the Bruin defense performs.
If UCLA comes out on Saturday and plays defense with high intensity and takes USC out of its offensive game by pressuring on the perimeter with their quickness advantage while preventing dribble penetration, the Bruins should fare well in their first visit to the Galen Center.
(photo credit: AP)
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