Mick Cronin said he isn’t all too familiar with the UCLA-USC rivalry coming from the other side of the country, but he thinks he’s got the gist of it.
“I just know that you’re supposed to beat (the Trojans),” the first-year coach said.
UCLA men’s basketball (8-7, 1-1 Pac-12) will host crosstown rival USC (12-3, 1-1) at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night after splitting a two-game road trip in Washington last week. The Bruins have defeated the Trojans in five of their last seven meetings, with each team claiming a win on their home floor a season ago.
Cronin said he expects a physical matchup on Saturday in his first taste of the rivalry, and he didn’t hesitate when asked what worries him most about the Trojans.
“Onyeka (Okongwu),” Cronin said. “I’ve even learned how to say his name since I’ve been waking up at 3 in the morning watching him dunk on people in my sleep.”
Okongwu is leading USC in scoring and rebounding this season as a true freshman, averaging 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest, respectively.
While the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in rebounding margin at 8.6 per game, Cronin said it will be difficult to maintain that pace against Okongwu and the Trojans – a group that ranks first in the conference in total rebounds per game.
Redshirt sophomore forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill – UCLA’s starting bigs – are also coming off a road trip in which their production came in well below their season averages. Riley and Hill recorded a total of just 19 points and 13 rebounds on the two-game trip despite the pair averaging a combined 19 points and 12.6 rebounds per contest this season.
However, freshman guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said the Bruins understand what it will take to match the Trojans’ physical style of play thanks to the competition it has faced in the thick of nonconference play.
“We’ve had a lot of physical games, obviously Washington, playing Michigan State and North Carolina,” Jaquez Jr. said. “Those have all been very physical games, so I think we’re going to be prepared.”
Junior guard Chris Smith also said that UCLA has been revitalized by the arrival of Pac-12 play because it has given the team somewhat of a clean slate after its 7-6 start to the season.
“In conference is a different season than the games before,” Smith said. “There’s some energy going and we just know that it’s basically a new season so we’re trying to pick it up, keep the energy up, keep the spirits up so we can turn (the season) around.”
Smith has had the largest uptick in production since the start of conference play despite already leading the team in scoring with 11 points per game entering the matchup against Washington last Thursday. He averaged 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds on the road trip and secured his first career double-double – as well as a career-high 12 rebounds – against the Huskies.
Smith also played a key role in the most recent meeting between UCLA and USC at Pauley Pavilion, scoring 13 points in 22 minutes to help the Bruins secure a 93-88 overtime victory in February 2019.
Tip-off for Saturday’s matchup is set for 7 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.