Like so many longstanding college rivalries, the crosstown basketball battles between UCLA and USC have gone in cycles.
The rivalry began with USC, the older school located just south of downtown Los Angeles, enjoying a big edge over the newer school in what was in the beginning located in very rural Westwood.
The Trojan's early edge was established by Sam Barry, the only coach ever to take a basketball team to the final four of the NCAA tournament and a baseball squad to the College World Series. Barry’s basketball fortunes were enhanced by great players such as Bill Sharman, Ralph Vaughn, and Alex Hannum.
After football coach Howard Jones died of a heart attack early in 1941, Barry took over the reins that fall for one season. He succumbed to a heart attack while climbing the steps at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley to scout Cal. His 18 years as a football assistant was second in the history of USC, exceeded only by the 26 years of service of Marv Goux.
Barry set an NCAA record for dominance over a basketball opponent with an incredible 40-year victory skein over UCLA established between 1932 and 1942.
Legend Barry had coached at Iowa before coming west. An Indianan moved west and took over the reins at UCLA for the 1948 season, a former Purdue All-American. For years John Wooden won respect for his coaching, but adulation resulted when he hit his stride with experience after moving into his 50s.
Wooden won a staggering 10 NCAA titles in 12 years and became renowned as “The Wizard of Westwood.” His milestone achievements also corresponded with the building of Pauley Pavilion, an edifice in which opposing teams knew that they were in Bruin Country.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was reportedly recruited to UCLA on the assurance of a beautiful new basketball arena to showcase his talents. It was dedicated in 1965 and became the home of another great college and pro Hall of Fame center in Bill Walton.
As for the Trojans, their coaches and fans lamented that, whereas the Bruins had a devastating home court advantage at Pauley Pavilion, they did not have one at all while playing before sparse turnouts at the Sports Arena across the street from the USC campus.
The USC faithful saw an opportunity to gain a home court advantage amid the new enthusiasm of Galen Center, and Sunday night the Trojans scored their first victory over their crosstown rivals after three straight losses on their home floor amid a partisan crowd, securing a 68-64 victory and sweeping the season series against the Bruins two to nothing.
The current opposing coaches are veterans known for intense defense. Kevin O’Neill took over the reins at USC this season under less than cheery circumstances.
Athletic Director Mike Garrett did not wait for the outcome of an NCAA investigation into the recent past activities of the Trojan basketball program and issued a penalty of his own, barring USC from the Pac 10 and NCAA tournaments.
O’Neill swallowed the bitter pill and explained that his team would have the incentive of having every regular season game loom as a post-season tournament opportunity. The Trojans have played with strong motivation and focus as redshirt senior Marcus Johnson has assumed leadership reins and is being touted as an NBA prospect.
Mentor Ben Howland of UCLA became the first coach since Wizard Wooden to take the Bruins to two Final Fours in a row, then went one better and made it three.
Howland, an aggressive recruiter, lost some of his nuggets to the NBA and has had to rebuild this season with a talented but very youthful squad. While mistake prone in the manner of young teams, improvement has been visible.
For instance, on the crosstown rivalry front the Trojans handed the Bruins one of their most humiliating losses in Pauley Pavilion history with a 67-46 blowout earlier this season. A major catalyst was a large USC rebounding edge over the home team.
While USC managed to win a close one at home, combining a sturdy defense with timely three-point shooting, on Sunday, Howland had the Bruins well prepared this time as evidenced by his team’s 46-25 rebound edge over the home team.
With two young teams playing with maximum intensity a number of mistakes occurred. The high energy intensity, however, resulted in an exciting game that was in doubt until virtually the end.
It looks as if Los Angeles area basketball patrons are in for some highly competitive crosstown matchups pitting two evenly matched and highly astute coaches who stress defense and hate to lose.
Let the Howland-O’Neill games continue and enjoy them!