Trivia question: Name the L.A.-based college basketball team that features a transfer starting at guard, relies heavily on its front court, boasts five players scoring in double digits and is led by a defensive-minded coach. Hint: This team very nearly beat No. 3 Kansas on the road.
The answer, of course, is twofold. UCLA and USC ““ who will meet Sunday night at the Galen Center ““ are essentially mirror images of each other in many respects thus far in the 2010-2011 season. Both the Bruins (9-5, 1-1 Pac-10) and the Trojans (9-6, 1-1) are right in the thick of the Pac-10 race, seemingly wide-open outside of perhaps conference front-runner Washington.
“We’re definitely very similar teams,” sophomore forward Brendan Lane said. “We do match up well, but it’s going to be tough. They’re not an easy team.”
USC has played some of its best basketball since the arrival of junior guard Jio Fontan, a transfer from Fordham who has added a new dimension to the team’s offense. In Fontan’s first game after becoming eligible, the Trojans nearly knocked off the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kan. The Trojans then went on to beat Tennessee on the road and lost a thriller to Washington in overtime.
USC also has on its resume a 17-point win over then-No. 19 Texas.
Additionally, the Trojans hold a three-game win streak over the Bruins, whom they defeated twice in last year’s regular season as well as in the 2009 Pac-10 Tournament. Thus, only two of UCLA’s scholarship players have ever experienced a victory in the rivalry.
“Last year, losing to them twice, it really sucks,” sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. “We’ll be fired up.”
The game’s featured matchup will likely come in the paint, where the likes of Lane, Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith will have to do battle with USC’s Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, who comprise one of the better sets of big men around.
Vucevic is fifth in the conference in scoring at just under 16 points per game, and he leads the Pac-10 in rebounds with 10 per game. Stepheson is second in that category, averaging nearly nine rebounds of his own.
“They have a very good front court,” coach Ben Howland said. “(Vucevic is) either the top player or one of the top two players in our league, in terms of big guys, for sure.”
“We just got to be physical with them,” Lane added. “Box them out, and don’t let them get any second-chance opportunities.”
Both the Bruins and the Trojans split their conference-opening games against the Washington schools, and will have had more than a week to prepare for the rivalry game.
Given its youth and this game’s magnitude, an entire week of practice and preparation may have come at just the right time for UCLA.
“We’d like to get back and play sooner, but we have a lot of things to work on,” Lane said. “They killed us last year, so we really want to come out here and make a statement.”
Even with the presence of stars like Vucevic, Fontan and Honeycutt, expect a balanced scoring affair all around. Both teams feature five players that average in double figures, and both Howland and USC’s Kevin O’Neill are ardent preachers of defense.
Sunday’s matchup could prove to be a critical tipping point in the early going of the conference race; after they clash at the Galen Center, both teams will head north for a weekend set against the Oregon schools, for what is likely the easiest of the Pac-10 road trips. A 4-1 conference record for one of these teams isn’t out of the question, as if this game needed any more fuel.
“Your crosstown rival’s a big deal,” Howland said. “Our guys will be ready to play, they’ll be ready to play, there’ll be a great crowd. Is there added importance because it’s crosstown? Always.”