USC Basketball: Too Early to Call UCLA Game Crucial to Trojan Success?

Rick McMahanSenior Writer IJanuary 4, 2011

Nikola Vucevic
Nikola VucevicStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Many people will tell you that in college basketball, the third game of any conference schedule is far too early to place significant importance on it.

Perhaps they are right.

But what if you are a young team trying to find your identity?

What if the best player on your team, according to your coach, is only playing his fifth game with the squad?

And what if he is joined by three true freshmen who are counted on to contribute, in large portions, to whatever success USC hopes to achieve this season?

And finally, what if that third conference game is against your arch-rival, UCLA?

When the Trojans host the Bruins on Sunday at the Galen Center, these will be some of the questions facing USC as they try to build on the momentum they have built over the last eight games or so.

With victories over two Top 25 teams (Texas and Tennessee) and a close loss on the road at Kansas, the Trojans have given notice that despite their youth, they are good and are only going to get better.

Despite an overtime loss to preseason conference favorite Washington, USC has improved with each game and Jio Fontan, the player head coach Kevin O'Neill calls "the best player on the team," is still trying to find his niche in the rotation.

When he does, watch out.

Fontan brings experience and talent to a lineup that features perhaps the best forward in the conference, Nikola Vucevic, along with forward Alex Stepheson, who is still playing basically one-handed but doing it well.

Meanwhile, those true freshmen, point guard Maurice Jones and off guard Bryce Jones, along with forward Garrett Jackson, join seniors Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons to form a nice, if thin, rotation that coach O'Neill is becoming increasingly comfortable with.

Now come the mighty Bruins.

Okay, maybe not so mighty but nonetheless, they are UCLA.

And, despite what many would call a much easier schedule than the Trojans, they do sport a better overall record.

And this is a rivalry game, one that both teams will look to build the rest of their season on if victorious.

If the Trojans can win on Sunday, they will find themselves in the upper echelon of the Pac-10 standings.

For a young team, this will be heady stuff and will provide a positive foundation as USC moves forward through the conference schedule.

However, if the Trojans lose, given their young age, it may also signal a downward spiral that O'Neill may be hard pressed to stem.

That's the price of youth.

So, is winning this game crucial to this season's overall success for the Trojans?

Maybe not, but for a young Trojan team, a win would remove the question altogether.

And that is the best answer the Trojans can give.