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Q&A: Daily Trojan Sports editor discusses men’s basketball crosstown rivalry rematch

Freshman forward Adem Bona puts up a shot in the paint in UCLA men’s basketball’s win over USC on Jan. 5. The Bruins and Trojans will face off again at the Galen Center on Thursday. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Sam Settleman and Jon Christon

Jan. 24, 2023 11:51 a.m.

This post was updated Jan. 24 at 10:50 p.m.

No. 8 UCLA men’s basketball (17-3, 8-1 Pac-12) will make the short journey to the Galen Center on Thursday evening to take on USC (14-6, 6-3) after the Bruins took the first matchup between the two teams earlier in January. Prior to this season’s second edition of the crosstown rivalry, Daily Bruin Sports Editor Sam Settleman and senior staff writer Jon Christon sat down with Daily Trojan Sports Editor Stefano Fendrich to discuss the matchup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Bruin: If you look at the first time these two teams played this year, it was kind of a weird game. There wasn’t really a point in which there was great basketball being played on both sides. Do you expect Thursday’s matchup to be maybe a little bit more of a back-and-forth affair?

Daily Trojan: I would hope to think so. I think USC as a team has grown a lot since that UCLA game. I think that UCLA game was pretty eye-opening for them as a team. Obviously you have that tough, blowout loss to Arizona, but then to come back two days later and beat a good ASU team, it shows a lot of grit. So I think USC will come out stronger offensively. As the games have been going on this season, USC has just gained more confidence offensively. That’ll be the key, especially for USC. If they can just start to make shots in general, I think they’ll be able to come away with a better result. But I think also just staying composed is good because too many times USC will just, when they have a lead, they’ll just start throwing the ball everywhere. Like speaking of that last ASU game, I think they finished the game with eight straight possessions ending in a turnover. So I think they just need to be more disciplined. And if they can do that, I think they can beat anyone.

DB: Last time these two teams played, USC had a season-low 58 points. UCLA is a very competent defensive team, but what did they do right defensively in that one? And how can USC maybe change that a bit on Thursday?

DT: They were just making USC uncomfortable. There was, except for Reese Dixon-Waters, no one who really had a good shooting night. There was just no real cohesiveness, which has been kind of common throughout a lot of USC’s games on offense. As you said for UCLA, the strong point (for USC) has been the defense, and then the offense has been more of a second thought. But I think especially with Vincent Iwuchukwu coming back, that changes our offensive game and gives us more versatility. But I think, again, just staying calm on offense – not just trying to force it into Drew Peterson and make him work his magic – could bode well for us in the game.

DB: USC is kind of top heavy at the top with (guards) Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis. What USC player would you call the X-Factor outside of those two for Thursday’s game?

DT: So one of my personal favorites, just watching him play, is Kobe Johnson. He’s not going to put up 15 and five, but he’s going to pad the stat sheet and he’s always going to be active on defense. If you’re watching USC play, constantly Kobe Johnson is getting his hands in passing lanes and is a headache for defenders. He definitely is a big part of our strong defense, and multiple times he’ll get a key steal that leads to an instant basket. He’ll have stat lines where he’ll have seven points, four steals, a block, five assists – he’s just padding the stat sheet and is kind of everywhere when you watch the game. I think if Kobe Johnson has a good game, USC will come out with a good result.

DB: USC right now is 14-6, 6-3 in the conference, tied for third in the Pac-12, 49th in KenPom, 62nd in NET ranking. They don’t have a clear NCAA tournament resume. So just asking you: Do you think this Trojan team is an NCAA tournament-caliber team?

DT: That’s kind of the tricky one because early in the season, they had a lot of opportunities to get good wins against good teams to help build the resume, and then they didn’t really do that except for against Auburn. When you look at USC play and you watch their defense, you would think this is an NCAA-level team, a team that can get multiple wins in the tournament. But then when you watch them on offense, sometimes it’s on, sometimes it’s off, and it’s usually not very consistent. So right now I think they need to beat either one of UCLA or Arizona – or I guess Oregon, too, if they keep it up – to make it into the tournament or do well in the Pac-12 tournament. As of now, I don’t think they’re there yet. They’re not a complete team. But I do see their path to making it in. I mean, the rest of their schedule is definitely a little difficult, but if they can put together some good basketball, I think it’s definitely possible for them to get in.

DB: If they don’t get in to the NCAA tournament, would you consider this season a disappointment coming in with expectations before the season?

DT: I think coming in, a lot of people saw that we had Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis returning and thought, ‘OK, it’s time to run it back. We’ll make another NCAA Tournament.’ But if you really looked at the rest of the roster, we had – I think it was – eight players leaving. We have a bunch of new freshmen, we only have three or four total upperclassmen on the roster. So I mean, this year is kind of the in-between of two generations because next season we have one of the No. 1 recruits coming in. So personally, based off what I’ve seen play from more of like a critical standpoint, I think this is a successful season, just how they played going in. Especially from the first game of the season against Florida Gulf Coast, you would think, ‘This team is finishing bottom of the conference.’ But, as you said, you’ve seen the team progress and you’ve seen the team become more cohesive as a team. From a fan perspective, if you just look at it based on the records more casually, I think you’d think this was a disappointment. At USC, people think it’s commonplace for us to make whatever tournament, whatever playoff every single year, so it’s a disappointment if they don’t. But I think just looking at where this team has come from, I’d say this is a fairly successful year.

DB: What should UCLA fans expect out of an Andy Enfield-coached team?

DT: I think very similar to (UCLA coach Mick) Cronin, it’s very defensive-minded, very slow pace, almost boring game, but he loves to switch up his defense. He constantly goes from man-to-man, to a two-three zone, to just straight up full-court pressure. He doesn’t like teams to get very comfortable on offense. It’s constantly just trying to hurry up the team. It’s a very suffocating defense. So that’s what you should expect to see on the defensive end. On offense, as the games have gone on, it’s gotten a little bit better, but a lot of the times he likes to have the ball in Drew Peterson’s hand a lot and see him try and create opportunities for everyone else. He likes to drain the shot clock down a lot on offense and have the defense collapse to Drew and then have him make a decision. And that doesn’t always work. But a lot of the times, it’s going to be centered on defense and having the defense create better offense.

DB: Both UCLA and USC have lost to Arizona at this point this season. But UCLA still has a little bit of a cushion on top of the Pac-12 standings. Who do you think, in your opinion, is the best team in the conference right now and who has the best chance to make a deep run in March Madness?

DT: Just based off the Arizona game where I watched Arizona dismantle USC, I am leaning towards them and also leaning to not give UCLA much credit. But watching Arizona beat USC, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a team that can go far.’ So I definitely say them. But when you look at UCLA, it’s hard to discount them, especially because they have the combination between some young talent, but then you have (senior guard/forward) Jaime Jaquez (Jr.) and (redshirt senior guard) Tyger Campbell who can really hold it down and have been there before and know what it’s like. So I’m leaning towards Arizona to make a deeper run, but I wouldn’t be surprised if UCLA goes far with them.

DB: We’ve seen a lot of close games this rivalry. What’s your score prediction for this one on Thursday?

DT: I’m going to have to go USC winning in a nail-biter. I’ll have them winning 57-53 in a very low-scoring game.

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Sam Settleman | Sports editor
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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