12 min Read

USC – UCLA to battle for the conference lead

By Rich Ruben

The Pac-12’s top teams will play the first of two games against one another on Saturday, as USC takes on UCLA. The teams have many similarities but also some big differences. Both are 14-3 overall; the Bruins lead the Pac-12 at 9-1, with the Trojans second at 8-2. Oregon is the only other team with only two losses (4-2) but the Ducks have missed a number of games and may not have enough time to make them all up. The rest of the teams have at least four Pac-12 losses. Saturday’s game is arguably more important to the Trojans; a loss would leave USC two games behind their rivals with nine to play including the season finale rematch.

The team stats are similar in many categories. USC’s NET ranking is 23 and the Bruins are 36. The Bruins rank 27th in offensive efficiency and the Trojans 36th. The Trojans rank 31st in defensive deficiency while the Bruins are a surprisingly low 144th. Head coach Mick Cronin prides himself as a defensive coach and the relatively poor defensive showing must rankle him.

Last year USC swept the two games, winning 74-63 in January at Pauley and winning the season finale in unforgettable fashion at Galen 54-52 on a last second three by Jonah Mathews.  A big difference between the teams is that most of the current Bruins suffered thru those losses while the rebuilt Trojans only have three players who played in the two wins. The Trojans finished last year with a 22-9 record while the Bruins recovered from a slow start in November and December to finish 19-12.  UCLA finished second in the conference at 12-6 and the Trojans tied for third one game back.

The Team Stats Are Mostly Close

The Bruins are making 45% of their shots from the floor, 37% from three and 74% from the line. The Trojans spilts are 46%, 33% and 65%. USC’s winning margin is plus 11.7 points per game, the best in the conference and 26th nationally. The Bruins’ margin is 8.0 which is fifth in the league and 53rd nationally

The Bruin lost to San Diego State in the season opener 73-58, to highly rated Ohio State by seven and to Stanford 73-72. They have a lot of close conference wins, beating Utah at home by 2, Colorado at home by 3, ASU on the road by 6, Arizona in Tucson by 5, Washington at home by 5, and Cal on the road by 4. The Trojans have had some close calls as well but not as many.

Thru Wednesday Andy Katz listed the Bruins as a 5 seed and the Trojans a 6. Joe Lunardi lists UCLA as a 6 and the Trojans a 7. Somehow Lunardi had the Trojans fall a level after the Stanford win.

Players And Both Teams Are Ranked Highly

Evan Mobley leads the conference in rebounds with 9 per game and brother Isaiah is fourth at 7.2. Evan leads the league with 2.5 blocks, and is fifth in field goal percentage at 58%. Tyger Campbell leads the league in assists with 6.2 per game.

Overall the Bruins rank fifth in the PAC 12 averaging 77.3 points, fourth in field goal percentage, and first in three point percentage though they take the fewest three point shots in the league. On defense they are 8th in opponent field goal percentage and 6th in opponent made shots from three. UCLA also has the third most rebounds and third most assists. Their defensive numbers are generally poor: 9th in turnovers, 12th in blocked shots and 12th in fouls.

The Trojans have made 74 more shots on 27 less attempts than their opponents. They have avoided significant foul trouble and have taken 124 more free throws and have made 70 more than the opposition. USC also has 140 more rebounds and average 8.3 more boards per game than their opponents.

The Teams’ Rosters Are Very Dissimilar

All of the Bruins except one who get playing time also played last season under Coach Cronin. They know the system and what Cronin wants them to do. This familiarity with the coaches and one another is likely the difference between winning so many close games or losing a few

The Trojans have a very different roster. None of the players have been in Enfield’s system for more than a year before this season. Ethan Anderson is a sophomore and the one returning starter, though he missed a lot of games this year due to a back injury. Sophomore Isaiah Mobley was the first big man off the bench last season and played a lot of minutes, but he starts now and his role has greatly expanded. Sophomore Max Agbonkpolo played off the bench last season though he didn’t play a key role like he is this season. Redshirt junior Noah Baumann sat out last year after transferring from San Jose State. He practiced with the team but this season is his first time playing at USC.

The rest of the roster includes two freshmen, three grad transfers, two other transfers, and a freshman who joined the team in December after graduating early from high schools. The shortened fall practice time also hampered the Trojans.

Evan Mobley leads the Trojans with 16.8 points per game, Tahj Eaddy averages 12.6, Drew Peterson averages 10.2, Isaiah Mobley 9.5 and Isaiah White averages 8 points per game. Evan, Tahj, Isaiah Mobley, Chevez Goodman and Isaiah White all shoot at least 45% from the floor, and Tahj, Drew, and Ethan Anderson are making 35% or more from three. The Trojans have out rebounded their opponents by 168 this season, or 6.3 per game.

The Trojans are an incredible 81-5 in games they hold their opponent to under 70 points dating back to February, 2015.

There is no question that in September the Bruins’ players’ bonds with staff and each other was much stronger for the Trojans. USC Coach Enfield and his staff has done a remarkable job of making this team cohesive by adding transfers who fit what the Trojans want to on both ends of the court, are great teammates and play to win and not for individual stats. The Trojan staff was able to accomplish this without any on campus visits or in person  contact of any kind.

A Look At The Bruins Individually

Cronin has used an eight man rotation in most games. 6’6” guard Johnny Juzang is a transfer from Kentucky and is the only Bruin in the regular rotation who did not play for Cronin last year. He averages almost 12 points and shoots 40% from the field, 34% from three and 90% from the line.

Point guard Tyger Campbell is listed at 5’11” but looks smaller. He has improved greatly from last year and is playing much more under control is scoring at a greater rate. He averages 11.5 points and has a slash line of 43%/ 29%/ 78%.

6’6”, 220 pound guard Jaime Jaquez may be the Bruins best player this season. He averages 12.6 points and almost six boards. His slash line is 46% /49%/ 68%.

Jules Bernard is another 6’6” guard who is averaging 9.3 points and 5 boards. His line is 45%/ 35%/ 80%.

The two main players in the front court are 6’9”, 225 pound Cody Riley and 6’10”, 245 pound Jaden Hill. Neither is a threat from three. Riley makes 55% of his shots, 68% from the line and averages 6 rebounds. Hill averages 6.5 points and 5.9 rebounds and has made 55% from the floor and 67% from the line. Riley has been playing bigger minutes lately.

All of the Bruin guards and wings are big except Campbell. It is the same with the Trojans; all except Ethan Anderson and Tahj Eaddy are big. Isaiah White, Drew Peterson, Max Agbonkpolo and Noah Baumann are all 6’6” or bigger.

Mick Cronin Has A Great Record

Cronin is in his second season at UCLA. He’s been known as a defense first coach and that’s why his team’s rather ordinary defensive performance this season is surprising. In the second half of last season the Bruins started winning when he got full buy-in on the defensive end.

The Bruins often play with only one front court player. Cronin likely will try that lineup to see if he can force the Trojans to play with only one big. The guess here is that Enfield won’t counter by removing one of the front players and will instead force one of the wings to cover Isaiah Mobley or Chevez. Enfield has confidence that all of his players can switch on ball screens so the Trojan bigs have defended wings at times in most games.

Cronin was hired by the Bruins from Cincinnati, where he worked under former Bearcat AD Mike Bohn. Cronin was the national coach of the year in 2018 and had a streak of nine straight years in the NCAA Tournament.

Prediction

There is no home court advantage Saturday. UCLA will bus from their dorms or apartments and won’t have to stay in a hotel or get on a plane. With no fans in attendance the only advantage homes teams have gotten this year in the Pac 12 has been avoiding staying in hotels and living out of suitcases.

Cody Riley and Tyger Campbell have been very effective recently for the Bruins. This game should be the biggest test Riley and fellow big man Jalen Hill have faced. Expect to see the Trojans front line make things very hard on the UCLA bigs. The Bruin big men are bigger bodies than Evan but not by enough that it should matter

Campbell has made a big jump in his play from last season. He is a little like Remy Martin at ASU; very quick and makes most of his points on pull up shots in the lane. He has a very good assist/ turnover ratio and we shouldn’t expect to see that change against the Trojans. Campbell may be the toughest defensive assignment for USC in the game.

The Bruins have been able to play for stretches with only one big man because their wings and guards are tall. The Trojans will match that size with Drew Peterson, Max Agbonkpolo, Isaiah White, and Noah Baumann. Matching the UCLA backcourt size will make things more difficult on the perimeter for the Bruins. The Bruin guards are good rebounders but so are Drew, Max and Isaiah White.

Expect UCLA to press after made shots, especially when Ethan is not on the floor. The Trojans are likely preparing for double teams when Evan gets the ball anywhere inside 12-15 feet and UCLA might give Max, Noah and Isaiah White room to shoot threes and to try to keep the ball out of the lane unless the Trojans make a few from outside. They will let Isaiah Mobley take as many threes as he wants, and expect the Bruins to use a zone on at least some possessions to see how the Trojans respond.

Final thoughts: When the Bruins drive the ball into the lane they will try to get the Mobley brothers in foul trouble. If Isaiah Mobley has the ball inside for an easy shot he will likely get fouled since he struggles from the foul line. And the Trojans need to keep Juzang, Campbell and Bernard off the line; they are very good foul shooters.

This game may be decided based on whether the Trojan big men can dominate on both ends or whether Campbell’s quickness can get open shots for himself and his teammates. I like the Trojans to win a close game.