I didn’t want to cause any alarm or sound like a Debbie Downer to anyone in Bruin Nation, but when I saw the roster of USC’s basketball team and found that they had three players over seven feet tall on it, combined with the lack of size and ability to rebound well on UCLA’s side, I had a feeling that the Bruin hoops squad might have a hard time at Pauley Pavilion against their crosstown rivals.
Considering that the Trojans, on a night where UCLA staged a “Blue Out” with the Bruins wearing alternate uniforms and Reggie Miller, who starred in Westwood in the 1980s, getting his number 31 uniform retired at halftime, had nothing to lose with their now 9-13 record (4-5 in the Pac-12), and pretty much outplayed UCLA in their 75-71 overtime win on Wednesday night, my concerns were painfully proven to be right.
Four factors stood out in this loss before a huge crowd of 12,821 that were loud and more than did their part to rattle the ‘SC players, three of them being rebounds (once again), points in the paint, and the fact that the Trojans were up by as much as 15 points in the second half before UCLA staged a frantic comeback, outscoring USC 21-8 in the final ten minutes with Jordan Adams’ jumper with 31 seconds left sending the game to overtime.
USC whooped the Bruins on the boards and in the paint, out rebounding them 44-36 and more than doubling Ben Howland’s team’s total as far as points scored inside the key, 30-13.
The fourth factor in UCLA’s third loss in their past four games was particularly telling: two baskets made out of 19 shot attempts from beyond the three-point arc, Shabazz Muhammad making both of them.
In what was undoubtedly their best performance of the season after firing coach Kevin O’ Neill, five Trojans scored in double figures, led by Aaron Fuller and Jio Fontan with 15 points apiece. Eric Wise added 12 points, ten of them coming after halftime, and did the biggest damage on the boards as his 11 rebounds – three of them on the offensive end – led everyone.
Muhammad, battling the flu, was the game’s high scorer with 22 points, but needed 18 shots to achieve that and missed a frantic three-point attempt with six seconds left that could have tied the game.
Travis Wear came back from a concussion suffered against Arizona, and he was much needed as he scored 16 points on five-of-nine-shooting, but Adams, who missed all four of his shots from behind the arc, was the only other Bruin in double figures with 13 points.
The big comeback that got Pauley Pavilion rocking left UCLA out of gas in overtime as they were outscored 10-6 in those extra five minutes.
It’s time for some brutal honesty here: Howland’s seat just heated up with this setback, leaving them at 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the conference as their 11-game winning streak is officially a distant memory.
“We’ve got some soul-searching to do,” the Bruin coach said after the game. “We can’t expect that because we’re at home that we’re going to win. You got to show up and be tough.”
Which USC was in every way imaginable; it seemed as if the Trojans knew they were playing their rivals and acted accordingly while the Bruins, in what turned out to be a reversal of their football counterparts’ battle with ‘SC on November 17th, didn’t figure that out until it was too late.
Concerns over the prospects of success for the rest of the season and NCAA tournament aspirations have grown considerably as UCLA now has a week off before they take the court again.
They have nine games remaining before the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas on March 13-16, and while they are winnable games, the way these Bruins are playing at the moment they are also very much losable games as they have four home-and-home contests against the Washington schools, plus a Bay Area trip against a Stanford Cardinal and a California Golden Bear team that will be itching to avenge their earlier losses to UCLA.
The Arizona schools close out the home schedule, and the Bruins have to try to avoid a Trojan sweep at their place, the Galen Center, on February 24th.
If they can match their 6-3 mark in these remaining games, that will be encouraging, but it’s very possible that UCLA could go 3-6 or worse unless they address what has shown to be a weakness on the boards and somehow overcome the fact that with Josh Smith gone and Tony Parker – who played but four minutes against ‘SC and scored just one point – not being up to snuff, the Bruins don’t really have any bruisers that can be counted on to get rebounds.
Let’s face some more brutal reality Bruin Nation: Any opponent that has size, bulk, and can box out on the boards and grab rebounds is very much capable of beating the Bruins.
Indeed, the blueprint on how to beat UCLA is out and the rest of the Pac-12 is studying it rather intensely.
Redemption is sorely needed, and the first chance this team has to do that will be in practice over the next week before they face Washington.
Washington Huskies, Pauley Pavilion, Thursday, February 7, 6:00 p.m.
TV: ESPN or ESPN2