The UCLA Bruins (19-7, 9-4 Pac-12) basketball team is fresh off a week of practice and preparation for the second game of the season series with rival USC (12-14, 7-6 Pac-12). The Trojans stole the show at Pauley Pavilion when the teams met earlier in the season, but Sunday’s rematch at the Galen Center is going to be a flat-out war.
Both squads are fighting for seeding in the Pac-12 Tournament, and emotions will surely be running high. Tip is scheduled for 12:30 PM PST, and the game is being broadcast on Fox Sports Net.
To gear up for this crosstown showdown, I caught up with Evan Budrovich, a staff writer on the USC FanSided site, Reign of Troy. Evan was cool enough to spare some time for Q&A , as he let me pick his brain about the Trojans. In return, I fielded some of his questions about the Bruins, which have been published in an article on RoT.
Here are Evan’s thorough and thoughtful answers from his exclusive Q&A session with Go Joe Bruin.
Q: Since USC fired former head coach Kevin O’Neill, the Trojans have gone 5-4, and three of those losses came down to the wire (including a game USC probably should have won vs. California). Why has the team improved so much in such a short time with interim coach Bob Cantu? What are they doing differently? And how probable is it that Cantu is retained as the coach next season?
A: The Trojans record is improving in large part due to the change in attitude Bob Cantu has brought to the locker room. Under Kevin O’Neill, players were afraid to shoot, take chances and play with instinct. Cantu has opened up the playbook and allowed his best players, J.T. Terrell and Jio Fontan, to play with more freedom on the offensive end of the court. This can best be noticed by the team’s motivation to push the tempo by scoring within the first 20 seconds of the shot clock. The Trojans are scoring over 70 PPG since his arrival, but this team needs a proven leader to run this program. As much as Cantu has impressed in the past two months, a new head coach will be coming to USC. I still think USC will offer Cantu a job as assistant coach, whether he accepts is a different story.
Q: If you had to highlight one player that has gone above and beyond expectations for USC this season, who would you choose? What about that player’s game has been so valuable to the Trojans’ moderate success (relative to last year)?
A: Dewayne Dedmon is the one Trojan who has played above and beyond expectations. Dedmon has developed a 15-foot perimeter shot, touch in the paint and toughness in the block. The issue for the seven-footer is that he struggles on pick-and-roll defense which allows him to get into foul trouble early into the game. If Dedmon can stay on the court for 25-plus minutes per game, the Trojans become more active on defense and can push their high-tempo attack. The junior will continue to grow as he develops lateral quickness and a better back-to-the-basket post game.
Q: It’s no surprise that the Bruins have struggled mightily in the rebounding department this season. In the loss to USC, the Trojans out-rebounded UCLA, 42-34. If by some stroke of luck the Bruins find a way to limit USC’s dominance on the glass, where would the Trojans turn to win the game? As in, what is their next greatest advantage?
A: An underrated advantage the Trojans have over the Bruins is in their three-point shooting. Although statistically the Bruins tromp the Trojans from behind the arc, USC has been taking and making more shots in their last five games. In Pac-12 play, USC is shooting 36-percent from the field, placing them second overall in the conference. Byron Wesley and J.T. Terrell have quietly led the Trojans attack from behind the arc, fueling their new-found success. If USC can shoot well from three, they can replace a tough night on the boards.
Q: In the previous meeting between UCLA and USC, the Trojans survived 17 turnovers to edge the Bruins in overtime. Has USC been playing cleaner basketball of late, or is ball security still a major issue for the Trojans?
A: Ball security has been one of the biggest issues for the Trojans this season. In the last game against Cal, USC allowed Allen Crabbe to grab five steals in the second half propelling their double-digit comeback. When USC can hold onto the ball, the Trojans are a tough team to stop. Opposing defenses understand this and are pressuring Jio Fontan all the way up the court. Another player that must be careful is Dewayne Dedmon, who is second on the team in committing turnovers.
Q: Given the remainder of the Trojans’ schedule and their current standing, do you think it’s possible for USC to sneak into the top-four of the Pac-12 and earn a bye in the conference tournament? If no, which games will be holding them back?
A: On Sunday I would have said this was a highly-likely possibility, but the loss to Cal makes those efforts nearly impossible. Games against ASU, Arizona and UCLA make for a difficult finish to what has been ranked one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Trojans have been playing much better over the past five games, but would ideally need to win out to secure a top-four spot. The game that could make or break the chance at top-four will be Saturday against the Arizona State Sun Devils, who defeated USC in overtime in their last meeting.
Q: As we all know, USC is first and foremost a football school. The gridiron is top priority, and basketball always takes a back seat. But has the improvement of this year’s team excited the Trojan fan base at all? Would they be impressed by an NIT appearance from a USC squad that was left for dead in December?
A: The Trojans have improved their win total from last season’s six, yet the conversation remains focused upon Spring Football for USC fans. Basketball is a second-fiddle sport at USC and that will not change this season, even if the Trojans rack up victories in the NIT. That being said, basketball fans have appreciated the inspired performance their team has been playing with over the last two months. Fans really began to take notice after the UCLA game, sparking some interesting discussion about the marketability of Bob Cantu and this USC program. In the end however, it will take some major upsets down the stretch for fans to call this season impressive.