Preview: USC vs. UCLA

The University of Southern California Trojans take on their biggest challenge of the season this Saturday, battling the #3 cross-town rival UCLA Bruins in front of a sold-out Galen Center crowd.
The Trojans are coming off a sweep of the State of Oregon, handing the #15 Oregon Ducks their first and only loss this season and hammering the Oregon State Beavers by over 40 points.
Records: USC (13-4); UCLA (14-1).
Notable Wins Over Potential Tourney Teams: USC (LBSU, UW, UO); UCLA (Texas A&M, UW, Kentucky, GT).
Conference Ranks: Offense, Defense, Notable.
USC: 6th scoring offense (72.6 PPG); 2nd scoring defense (60.2 PPG); 1st FG % defense (35.0%).
UCLA: 4th scoring offense (76.8 PPG); 3rd scoring defense (60.3 PPG); 2nd FG % offense (50.0%).
F Nick Young 16.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG.
G Lodrick Stewart 14.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG.
F Taj Gibson 13.6 PPG, 9.3 RPG.
G Gabe Pruitt (6 games) 8.7 PPG, 3.0 APG.
G Aaron Afflalo 16.3 PPG, 2.4 APG.
G-F Josh Shipp 14.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG.
G Darren Collison 12.9 PPG, 6.2 APG.
G Luc Richard Mbah a Moute 9.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG.
Kings of the Beaver State: USC swept the Oregon schools last weekend, handing Oregon their only loss of the season on Thursday and blowing out Oregon State on Saturday. UCLA suffered their only loss of the season on Saturday to the Ducks, 68-66.
Common Ground: The Bruins and Trojans have played 5 common opponents thus far this season (LBSU, UO, OSU, UW, WSU). The only discrepancies with respect to the common opponents involve the Ducks and Cougars. USC defeated Oregon and lost to WSU while UCLA lost to the Ducks and beat WSU in Pauley Pavilion on December 28th.
4-Way Stop: Four schools sit atop the Pac-10 standings at 3-1 in conference. Those teams are USC, UCLA, Arizona and the much-improved Washington State Cougars. Speaking of Washington State, the Cougars earned a national top 25 ranking (AP No. 22, USA Today/ESPN No. 23) this week for the first time since 1983.
Tied for Second: The Trojans and Connecticut trail only Texas A&M with respect to field goal percentage defense. USC and UConn are holding opponents to 35% shooting from the field, just narrowly behind the Aggies' 34.5%.
Thursday evening saw USC hand the Oregon Ducks their first and only loss of the season, 84-82. Lead by Taj Gibson's monstrous 18 point, 13 rebound and 7 block performance, USC stunned the #16 Ducks in front of a sold-out McArthur Court crowd. Nick Young had 19 points and hit the game-winning fade-away shot over Oregon forward Marty Leunen with 21 seconds left in the game. Gabe Pruitt added 18 points and 4 rebounds for the Trojans, who shot 55% from the field for the game.
On Saturday, USC played their most complete game of the year thus far, demolishing Oregon State, 91-46. Lodrick Stewart shot 90% from the field for the game (9 for 10), scoring a career-high 28 points. Taj Gibson added 20 points and Abdoulaye N'Diaye scored 16 points on 7 for 7 shooting in just 19 minutes of action. USC, which lead by as many as 50 points during the contest, entered into a first place tie atop the Pac-10 standings.
Scouting UCLA: The National Runner-Up Bruins have not skipped a beat this season, even after losing Jordan Farmar to the NBA. Speedy Darren Collison has taken the reigns of the Bruin offense, averaging over 6 assists per game in leading UCLA to the #1 ranking nationally for the better part of the early season. Though Collison runs the offense from his point guard position, there is no question that Aaron Afflalo is the leader of this Bruin team. Afflalo, a formerly streaky shooter that has seemed to put his inconsistencies to rest this season, is largely considered to be the best on-ball defender in not only the conference, but the country as well. Afflalo is joined on the offensive end by oft-injured Josh Shipp, a pure scorer that is seemingly always around the basket on both ends of the floor. Finally, the talented Bruins get significant contributions from their Cameroonian connection, forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. Both are hard-nosed kids that can do it all: score, defend, rebound and run the floor. The potential for Mbah a Moute is seemingly endless.
Ted's Take: 7 Quick-Hitters
Ted Venegas is a long-time contributor to USCFOOTBALL.COM. Here are Ted's thoughts on the match-up with the #3 Bruins.
1. The Bruins are a much better offensive team than they were last year. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, Darren Collison is better at driving and dishing than Jordan Farmar was. Collison averages over an assist more per game than Farmar did last season. Second, his drive and dish game enables UCLA to get more open 3- point looks. Last year the Bruins shot 35% from 3-point territory, and this year, they are at about 41%, good for second in the conference. Collison leads the Bruins, shooting a blistering 51% 3-point percentage. Additionally, unlike last season, Josh Shipp has been healthy for the majority of the schedule thus far. Shipp is a pure scorer, getting to the basket or the free-throw line any way that he can.
2. UCLA is better from the perimeter this season as well, but this is because they have to be due to their regression from last season in the paint. I never thought I'd say this, but UCLA definitely misses Ryan Hollins. Hollins gave them athleticism down low and solid accuracy from 15 feet in. Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya, and Ryan Wright aren't as athletic around the basket, and McDonald's All-American James Keefe barely plays because he can't defend anyone.
3. UCLA is also not the defensive team that they were last year. Pac-10 teams are shooting 45% so far against the Bruins, and they have preferred to test UCLA's interior defense because Hollins is not there to erase mistakes anymore. Mata is a decent shot blocker, but he's not as good as Hollins was. They don't rebound nearly as well either. Last year they were a +5 in rebounding margin, but that has been cut in half so far this year.
4. The guards shoot free throws very well, but the frontcourt players do not at all. Mata shoots 32%! Ouch. Free-throws may be a big factor, especially late in the contest. USC certainly has the advantage in this department, sitting 3rd in the conference at 72.3% on the season.
5. An interesting question will be the match-ups. Afflalo is a great defender. In the past, UCLA has put him on Lodrick Stewart to completely shut him down. In addition to this match-up, my guess is that we'll see Collison on Gabriel Pruitt. Josh Shipp likely would have matched up with Nick Young, but with him being out for this contest, we may see some double-teams on Nick along with more of a defense-by-committee approach to the Trojans' leading scorer.
6. Taj Gibson is going to eat alive whoever is guarding him if they single cover him, so UCLA simply won't. UCLA likes to double-team the post when there is a dominant player on the opposing team there. Through double-teams, the Bruins locked down many talented players last season, most-notably eventual first-round NBA draft pick Ike Diogu. This season has been no different, as UCLA did the same thing against UW and all-everything freshman Spencer Hawes just two weeks ago. Look for USC to bring Taj out to face up. By facing up, Taj not only draws out Bruin shot blockers/rebounders, but certainly tests the speed of the very quick Bruin double-team. The 4 other Trojan players have to recognize the double just as quickly as the subject of the double-team, and move/cut accordingly. Floyd has countered the double-team of Taj by facing him up a lot this year, so USC does have some experience (though they haven't faced a double-team as fast and efficient as the one that the Bruins employ). If Taj does stay down low, he will have to find the open shooters, because UCLA coach Ben Howland will not allow the Bruins to get beat in the post.
7. In my eyes, the two keys to this game are UCLA's 3-point shooting and turnovers. USC likes to defend the interior first. If the Bruins don't make threes, they'll be in big trouble. If they can't knock them down, then the Bruins will need to score in transition, and that happens with turnovers. UCLA is second in the conference in turnover margin at +4.80 per game. They are also tops in steals, averaging 9.7 per contest. On the flip side, USC has significantly cut down their turnover-prone ways since conference play has begun, averaging an excellent 12 turnovers per game. If we see a number like that coupled with a poor outside shooting night from the Bruins, USC will win this game by 8-10 points.
Since Gabe Pruitt's return, the Trojans have cut down on their turnovers per game, a true essential for this USC squad. As Ted noted, USC has only committed 12 turnovers per game since conference play started, down from the 20+ turnovers during the non-conference schedule. This trend must continue for USC to defeat the extremely talented Bruins and their demonstrated success in both steals and turnover margin.
Though the Bruins are near the top of nearly every statistical category in the conference on both offense and defense, they are not an excellent rebounding club and the recently announced loss of Josh Shipp to a hamstring injury will not help the Bruins out on either end of the floor. The Bruins are 8th in the conference in rebounding at 33.7 rebounds per game, though admittedly this stat is a bit misleading due to the high number of steals and limited shot attempts per game permitted by the Bruin defense. Conversely, USC leads the Pacific 10 in defensive rebounds and has the edge in the frontcourt due in large part to the play of Taj Gibson. Again, look for the Trojans to beat the Bruins on the boards and for Coach Floyd to anticipate the Bruins' double-teaming of Gibson leading to Taj being his normally productive self in both points and rebounds.
USC has been a hot shooting club of late, and the Bruins' use of double-teams throughout this game will provide many open looks for Trojan shooters. Of course, USC must rely on their experience with facing double-teams and move the ball around quickly when they occur. Also, the loss of Josh Shipp will force players such as Michael Roll and freshman Russell Westbrook to see much more action than the likely normally would have. Though the two players will lessen the impact of the loss of Shipp on offense, neither are considered good defenders, adding to the offensive advantage for USC.
Finally, the sole positive aspect about having an often-docile home arena is that when the arena actually is sold-out with a high energy level, the home players respond in a big, big way. Expect the first sell-out of the Galen Center to energize the Trojan scorers, and for USC to shoot very well from the field in this atmosphere. With good shooting, a low turnover count, a victory in the rebounding department and a sold-out home stadium….there is no reason why USC will not only be competitive with the extremely talented Bruins, but defend their new home court by defeating highly-ranked UCLA.
USC 75 UCLA 71