The finale to the Pac-12 regular season is closing hard and—with the standings jammed up at the top between Oregon, Arizona and UCLA—these final five games are critically important for the Bruins if they are going to win or share the league title.
After being upset at home by USC on Jan. 30, UCLA bounced back well, won three of their next four and managed a split last weekend against the Bay Area schools.
The Trojans have been playing good basketball since firing head coach Kevin O'Neill. The team won four in a row after beating UCLA and were up 15 points at Cal—the hottest team in the league—before Mike Montgomery shoved his best player in the chest and sparked a furious Bears' rally to beat SC, 76-68 in Berkeley.
The last time these teams played, Shabazz Muhammad was recovering from the flu and took IV fluids before the game. Travis Wear was returning from a concussion suffered in Tucson and practiced sparingly and without contact in the week preceding the game.
Muhammad has pink eye heading into this game said coach Ben Howland at the Tuesday press conference. But Howland does not expect that to bother the conference's second leading scorer at 18 points per game, against USC.
"It's depressing, I remember watching it the last time," said Coach Howland of the USC game tape. "We watched it as a team, and God, they were very good, we were very poor."
"We'll watch edits of that game, not the whole game again," said the coach. "The team will watch some edits of that game before practice on Thursday, which I think will remind them of our play in that game—it wasn't pretty.
"Give them credit, I thought they had a great game plan I thought they did a great job, but we can definitely play better than we did last time."
This is how and where—at least partially—UCLA can play better in order beat USC on Sunday, avoiding an upset and keeping them neck-and-neck in the race for the conference championship.
In the Jan. 30 game against USC, the Bruins sank into a morass in the last seven minutes of the first half, and came out sluggish after half time. Over that moderate span of game they were outscored 37-16 and got themselves into a 15-point deficit they had to scramble to make up.
"I'm a little disappointed at our effort coming out of the gate," Bruins guard Larry Drew II said after the game. "I don't think guys, for whatever reason, maybe were all the way into the game on the defensive end."
The Bruins' short bench—David Wear and Norman Powell—has to make its 20-22 minutes a concentrated punch of flavor and spice for the team, like a bouillon cube that flavors enough soup to feed a platoon.
They did not do that the first time out against USC. Powell and Wear combined for six points on 3-8 shooting, with nine rebounds and four assists. That is not enough substance to power this team when the starters take their rest.
UCLA scores plenty of points at 71.1 in conference, and essentially has a entire roster of players who can put the ball through the net; all they need to do is play hard defensively while running at their pace, and they will be there in the end.
Good ball security and high-percentage shooting have been the ways the Bruins have compensated for very sub-standard rebounding production over most of the season.
The last time out against Southern California, UCLA was good with the basketball, assisting on 17 baskets, stealing the ball 11 times and only turning it over seven. But they went 2-19 from three-point range and shot 38.2 percent for the game.
The rebounding numbers were much better against Stanford, with the Cardinal taking a 41-38 edge overall. The Bruins did turn the ball over an uncharacteristically high 14 times, but took back 11 steals, assisted on 17 baskets, shot 54.4 percent from the floor and shot 50 percent from three-point range, which was more than enough to get the 88-80 win in Palo Alto.
For UCLA to win Sunday, they will need to keep USC off the glass, especially at the offensive end. The Bruins allow 31.2 percent of their opponents' misses to be rebounded offensively, which ranks 208th nationally.
The Trojans out-rebounded the Bruins 44-36 at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 30 and won in overtime, 75-71.
At 17 assists a game, UCLA is seventh best in the country and tops in the conference. Their 1.52 assists-to-turnovers is fourth best nationally and also the best number in the Pac-12.
Hard work on the defensive window, especially from Larry Drew II, Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams—and good security with the ball—are two elemental keys to escaping the Galen Center with a win.
Coach Ben Howland has said several times over the course of this season that this group is one of his best open-court, transition basketball teams. He has never had a team anywhere that has scored more transition points off their opponents made baskets—when in general open-court offense comes from a missed shot—than this one.
In his Tuesday press conference, Howland cited two layups and a slam dunk that came off of Stanford Cardinal made baskets last Saturday. That is a fairly rare occurrence and indicates that a team covers the floor with exceptional speed, as they are beating their opponent to the opposite rim after giving them a head start.
USC did yeoman's work, limiting UCLA in the open court in their first game Jan. 30. There is evidence of that in UCLA's 38.2 percent shooting performance from the floor and the 19 three-point jump shots they settled for in the half court, making only two.
If the Bruins can rebound, they can get a track meet up at the Galen Center. Kyle Anderson can pull it off the window and initiate the break himself without making a pass. Larry Drew II can start the race himself, too, and if he begins to rebound—which he does fewer than three times a game—he is a lightning bolt out of the blocks.
But the Bruins must rebound their defensive glass, and that especially means the Wear twins, Shabazz Muhammad, Norman Powell and Anderson.
In addition to the transition game, the Bruins have to execute the fundamentals in the half court. That means quality screens, hard cuts, sharp passes and dribblers coming around ball screens low and under control, reading the defense and making solid decisions.
It also means shooting the open shot when it is there and making it.
But it is a young team, and precise execution is always a question with young teams. If the Bruins are sharp on Sunday, scoring in transition or running their offense cleanly and efficiently, they should beat the Trojans on their home floor in South Central Los Angeles, and leave the conquering heroes.
Other than Shabazz Muhammad—who was somewhat sluggish with what remained of the flu—UCLA's freshman were not good enough last time out against Southern California.
Muhammad managed 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting with one assist and six rebounds over 37 minutes. It was amazing he played as well as he did when you consider he took two liters of IV fluid prior to the game.
Jordan Adams got it going late in the game and helped send it to overtime, and consequently, his production looked better than it actually was for most of the night. Adams finished with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting to go along with three rebounds and two assists over 38 minutes.
Adams is the second-leading scorer on the team with 14.7 points per game; the 10th best in the league and third best among conference freshman. He is such a natural scorer, shooting that quick set jump shot with the feathery touch and all the right angles. Adams is a high-end hooper, and his team is going to need him to win.
Kyle Anderson never got it going at Pauley Pavilion against USC. The long-limbed, skilled, highly intelligent freshman had five points on 2-of-8 shooting with seven rebounds and four assists over 36 minutes. He has to be better in every phase of the game.
Anderson's 230 rebounds is second only to the machine, Kevin Love, and his 406 rebounds as a freshman, and Anderson leads the team in both total rebounds and rebounds per game at nearly 8.8.
The trio of freshman score 53.7 percent of the team's points and collect 46.3 percent of its rebounds. This young core has to bring its collective swagger and heart into the Galen Center if the Bruins are going to battle out with a win against their fiercest rival.
Coach Ben Howland paid Larry Drew II very high praise when he said at the Tuesday press conference, "He's playing like a senior."
Playing like a senior embodies everything about fortitude, endurance, intelligence and commitment to the team that a college athlete can have, and Coach Howland was right.
A big reason that UCLA is fourth nationally in assist-to-turnover ration is because Drew Two leads the country at 3.9. Drew ranks fourth nationally at 7.65 assists per game, which is also approaching a UCLA record, ahead of Pooh Richardson's 7.61 in 1989.
Two has also begun to shoot the ball more—and with some good effect. He has raised his three-point shooting percentage to 39.5 percent, and his percentage from the floor is 43.8. As an added scoring option, he becomes an exceptionally dynamic point guard.
Alongside the senior is a very talented and unique freshman, Kyle Anderson, who at 6'9'' not only rebounds like a frontcourt player, but handles the ball, sees the floor and distributes as well as any a point guard could hope to.
Anderson is sixth best in the league at 8.8 rebounds per game, sixth in assists at 3.7 and is the lone player in the Pac-12 ranked in the top 10 in both categories. Anderson also carries the fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference at 1.7 and scores almost 10 points a game.
This duo is the nerve center and firing pin of the team. They control the pace and flow of the game. If they play their roles with skill, steady nerve and panache for 40 minutes on Sunday, the Bruins will be in a position to return the favor to USC and split the regular-season series.