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With eleven games left in the season, UCLA has quite a bit to improve upon, coming off an embarrassing loss to Arizona State.
Their next tilt? It’ll come against the USC Trojans (8-13, 3-5 Pac-12), a team that’s already gone through a coaching change with the firing of Kevin O’Neill.
We’ll get to all that busy stuff later. For now, there’s a big problem this team poses to the UCLA Bruins: Size.
Indeed, USC boasts three seven-footers on its roster, all of which are rotation players.
The first is Omar Oraby, a 7-foot-2 Rice transfer, averaging 15 minutes a contest. While his per-game stats aren’t gaudy — earning 6.8 points per game, 3.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks — but Oraby’s an efficient big. Not only does Oraby lay claim to the team’s highest PER (while also shooting at a 57.9 percent clip, a team-best), but he’s also earning a solid rebounding rate of 14.6 percent, and gobbling defensive rebounds at a respectable 20.2 percent, both of which are second to fellow big man Dewayne Dedmon.
And Dedmon, too, is an efficient seven-footer, and his numbers mirror Oraby’s — with 6.4 points a contest in 21 minutes per tilt, although he’s averaging a much-higher seven boards per game. Meanwhile, both Dedmon and Oraby earn a blocking rate higher than ten percent, which has resulted in the USC big men combining for nearly four blocks a contest.
The other seven-footer, James Blasczyk, is less of a rockstar and, with all the size in Southern Cal’s rotation, doesn’t get much playing time, earning just seven minutes per game. But his presence nearly guarantees USC has a seven-footer on the court at all times.
Of course, this hasn’t posed an issue for 13 teams; USC is fighting to stay away from the distinction of worst Pac-12 hoops squad, and interim head coach Bob Cantu is not exactly improving this squad drastically, with their most recent contest resulting in an absolute clinic at the hands of Arizona.
So why does it matter if USC has three seven-footers if they can’t utilize them correctly?
Because UCLA hasn’t exactly done well with guarding big men and they’ve done even worse in the rebounding department. In their last outing, the Bruins were torched by 7-foot-2 Canadian big man Jordan Bachynski, who went off for a career night that saw him earn 22 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks against a Travis Wear-less UCLA team. Overall, the Sun Devils out-rebounded UCLA 49-29.
This isn’t a new trend that’s entirely dependent on Travis Wear’s presence, though. Even against Arizona, UCLA had a hard time rebounding, earning just a one-board edge, 45-44. Against Oregon, UCLA was out-rebounded 40-31 in the loss and in their match-up with Oregon State, the Bruins accumulated just a two-rebound advantage over Oregon State. Meanwhile, UCLA has been out-rebounded by conference foes Colorado, Utah, Stanford and California, according to RealGM.com.
All this to say that the Bruins have a hard time cleaning up the glass, a problem that’s pervasive but hasn’t come back to bite UCLA in the ass until recently, where UCLA has now lost two of its last three tilts.
Meaning if USC can gameplan to the level that doesn’t embarrass coaches of any sport at any level — as they have been so prone to do the past couple of years — they could somehow, someway walk away with an upset over the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA will have a difficult match-up against these Trojans if USC works inside-out. As much as Travis Wear has improved his interior defensive skills, he’s still not exactly a “good” defender (though one might argue he’s bordering such a label), often getting lost on rotations and getting beat consistently on rebounds while failing to box out his opponent. And, even if he had improved, it’s unlikely that he can bang with fresh seven-footers for 40 minutes, meaning at some point, this team will have to rely on Tony Parker or David Wear to defend the paint, and if you managed to watch the game against the Sun Devils, you’d know that neither David Wear nor Parker are capable of defending down low.
USC isn’t a world-beater but hoops is all about match-ups. It’s all too possible in this sport for the lesser team to walk away with a victory from a much, much better squad given the match-up disadvantages.
These things are alleviated with good coaching, though, and it’ll allow us to evaluate to what extent we can consider Ben Howland a “good coach.”