By Rich Ruben
The USC Trojans take their 21-9 overall record and 10-7 conference mark into a 12:15 Saturday game against UCLA at The Galen Center. The Trojans beat the Bruins 74-63 at Pauley on January 11, before the Bruins completely changed the trajectory of their season. Somehow first year coach Mick Cronin was able to turn his team’s season around and they are now in first place in the PAC 12. The current Bruins’ NET ranking is 76, which reflects how poorly they played in the first two months. The Trojans’ NET is 39.
In the first matchup, Nick Rakocevic led the Trojans with 17 points and 14 rebounds in one of his best games of the season. Jonah Mathews had 16 points, Daniel Utomi scored 13, and Ethan Anderson chipped in 14 points. The Trojans made 7-14 threes
Heading into this cross town showdown the Trojans are tied for fourth in the conference with Colorado. The Buffs close the season at Utah this weekend. ASU is currently third, a half game ahead of USC, and they play the two Washington schools at home this weekend. The Trojans are a half game ahead of Stanford and Arizona. Stanford plays road games at Oregon and OSU, while UofA hosts the Washingtons. If the Trojans win on Saturday they could finish as high as a tie for second, and will finish no lower than in a tie for fourth, depending on what other teams do this weekend. USC will be playing for a first round bye in the Pac 12 Tournament which begins on Wednesday.
Going into last weekend, ASU was the hottest team in the league, but after losing twice in LA last week and that label now applies to the Bruins. UCLA has won nine of their last ten. Like the Trojans, the Bruins have been winning with defense and clutch baskets. The Bruins’ season stats are mediocre. They are ninth in the conference in field goal percentage, ninth in three point percentage, and seventh in free throw percentage. The Trojans’ season stats are a little better except from the free throw line.
6’9” junior guard Chris Smith has been UCLA’s best player. He averages 13 points, and is the only Bruin averaging in double figures. Smith is making 46% of his shots and 33% from three. He is quicker than USC’s big men, and is a tough matchup for the Trojan wings. Daniel Utomi and Elijah Weaver will likely get the assignment against Smith, but they are both 6’6”. Smith had 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first game.
Seven other Bruins average 5-8 points. 6’6” freshman swing man Jack Kayman and 6’4” sophomore guard David Singleton are the two Bruins who average over 35% from three, though Kayman has been very streaky. 6’10” sophomore Jalen Hill is the leading rebounder at 6.9 per game, and converts 53% of his shots. Another 6’10” sophomore, Cody Riley, makes 52% of his shots. Freshman 6’6” Jamie Jaquez is 46% from the field and 32% from three. Red shirt freshman point guard Tyger Campbell has been playing his best basketball of the season over the last few weeks, but over the entire season he makes only 36% of his shots and 26% from three.
For the first two months of the season the Bruins were playing at a level far below their talent. Its very unusual, and perhaps has never happened before, that the Trojans have two five-star players and the Bruins do not have one on their roster. The highest rated Bruins when they were recruited are Prince Ali and Shareef O’Neal, who were both top-40 recruits, but Ali’s playing time has dwindled and O’Neal left school in December and is now at LSU. Chris Smith, the Bruins’s best player, was rated outside the top 100 when he signed with the Bruins, which suggests that the rating of high school players is very inexact.
USC center Onyeka Okongwu has set a new freshman record for blocks in a season with 74 to date. His 16.7 points per game are the fifth most for a Trojan freshman, ahead of DeMar DeRozan who is now sixth.
Senior Jonah Mathews is currently 17th on the career scoring list with 1371 points. He needs 31 points over the remaining games including post season play to catch number 16 Elijah Stewart. Jonah recently passed former Trojan great Gus Williams, whose number 10 is in the rafters at Galen (though in fairness, Gus played three seasons and Jonah is completing his fourth Trojan season). Jonah is also currently third on the career made three point shot list. He is only 1 behind second place Bennie Boatwright and only 3 behind career leader Elijah Stewart, and he will likely become the all time leader before the Trojans finish laying this season.
Senior grad transfer Daniel Utomi currently has 250 career made threes, most coming during his three years at Akron. He would be the all time leader if he had the same stats in four years at SC, and would be trying to hold off Jonah Mathews. Daniel has 1398 career points, 27 more than Jonah.
Senior Nick Rakocevic is second on the career rebound list, though Ron Riley’s career mark is out of reach. Nick also has 1286 career points which is the 22nd most in Trojan history. He is 11 points behind Taj Gibson and 17 behind David Bluthenthal. Nick has had a better career than many realize.
Ethan Anderson has 124 assists this season, fourth best for an SC freshman. Jordan MacLaughlin has the best single season record for any class with 281.
Finally, in the last five years, Coach Andy Enfield’s teams have won 21, 26, 24, 16 and 21 games this year and still counting.
I think the Trojans clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament last weekend regardless if they lose Saturday and again in their first game in the Pac 12 Tournament, but losing these next two games might make the Trojans’ position too close for comfort. No question that one more win will assure a bid. The streaking Bruins seem to now be on the right side of the bubble, but could be left out if they lose to SC and don’t win at least one game in Las Vegas next week. UCLA has clinched a first round bye in the conference tournament.
Saturday’s game is big for both teams. At a minimum, NCAA seeding will be impacted. Playing at Galen will be an advantage, and the Trojans have already beat the Bruins once though that win was before the Bruins experienced their big turn around. The Trojan front line is bigger and better than the Bruins’; the SC bigs score more, rebound better, and are tougher interior defenders. This game may be decided by which team plays the best overall defense. Both coaches say that their teams are defense oriented.
The second key factor in this game may be how well the guards on both teams play Jonah and Daniel are playing their best basketball over the last few weeks, and I don’t think the Bruin guards can offset the advantage in favor of the SC big men. The Bruins will likely use a full court press, and SC will need to handle it better than they have performed against other teams’ presses. Ethan and other ball handlers will need to do a better job getting the ball up court. The Trojans may use one of their bigs to receive a pass over the top at the defensive free throw line after a UCLA score and then pass to a ball handler; they have employed this strategy a few times this year.
Put it all together and I think the Trojans will win a close game and accomplish the trifecta: two basketball wins and a football victory.