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January 15, 2012
The Pac-12 season is on and this Sunday UCLA invades the Galen Center for round one of its annual series against cross-town rivals SC. UCLA is fresh off its sweep of the Arizona schools while SC is looking for some way to actually score some points.
USC is coached by experienced and respected coach Kevin O'Neill who is in his third year at the helm for the Trojans. This season Coach O'Neill has seen his team lose players to both the NBA and the injury bug. Same with UCLA of course, but the Bruins started with a lot more talent and have a lot more talent left over.
To put it in a nutshell, this is not a very good USC team. They are capable of playing good defense - and thus will present an interesting challenge to the Bruins, a challenge ratcheted up by the nature of the cross-town rivalry - but they have struggled to score themselves.
Coach O'Neill saw last years star player, Nikola Vucevic, go in the first round of the NBA draft and lost several players to graduation as well. And then SC lost arguably its best player, Jio Fontan, to a season-ending ACL tear back in September and hasn't really been able to replace him.
The Trojans stand at 5 wins and 12 losses (0-4 in conference) and last or nearly last in conference offensive statistics, but that has not kept the Trojans from giving it their all on the court and attempting to find that one go-to guy that every team needs.
USC has started only three players every game beginning with their best active player, Maurice Jones. Jones, a sophomore, checks in at 5-7 155 pounds and plays the point. He played in every game last year as a true freshman.
Jones is the team's leading scorer at 14.3 points a game. He leads in steals with 30 as well as assists with an average of 3.5 per game. He also grabs 2.4 rebounds and is averaging a whopping 38.6 minutes per game, one of the three highest totals in the nation.
Jones has had problems with turnovers and leads the Trojans with 43. He's shooting 34.5 percent of his field goals and 34.1 percent of his three point attempts. Jones also has had problems at the free throw line hitting only just 64.3 percent of his charity attempts.
It isn't easy being Maurice Jones this year. So much of his team's hopes for success rests on his shoulders. He is the primary ball handler and deals with double teams all the time. But he simply does not have that much talent around him and has to take it on himself to try and win games.
A 6-5, 210 pound freshman, Byron Wesley, has also started all 17 games. Wesley is averaging 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds and is second on the team in minutes played with and average of 33.1 per game. It is difficult when you have to depend on freshmen to win games but that is the reality facing Coach O'Neill and SC this year. Wesley is shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 50 percent of his free throws.
The third player who has started every game is 6-6, 225 pound red-shirt junior forward, Aaron Fuller. Fuller is a transfer from Iowa. Fuller is the team's second leading scorer averaging 10.8 points per game. Fuller leads the team in rebounding at 6.2 a game and is shooting 51.2 percent from the field.
Dewayne Dedmon is a 7 foot, 255 pound red-shirt sophomore who transferred in from Antelope Valley. He is averaging 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game and leads the team in blocked shots with 16. He is making 58.2 percent of his field goals. Coach O'Neill has said Dedmon has the most potential of any player he has ever coached. Dedmon has started every game he has played in and Coach O'Neill believes Dedmon is the future of his team.
True freshman Alexis Moore (6-2, 180) averages 5.8 points and 1.9 rebounds. Moore averages 27.1 minutes on the floor and is depended upon mostly for his defense. Moore will usually guard the opposing team's best shooter.
Coach O'Neill has ten players on his team and all of them average at least 11.8 minutes a game. Have we mentioned that this is not a good shooting team? From the field the Trojans average just 39.9 percent. From the three point line it only gets worse as they are hitting only 29.9 percent of their three point attempts. Moreover, SC as a team is converting just 60.9 percent from the charity stripe. They take good care of the ball averaging only 12.1 turnovers and have a plus 4 turnover margin.
On the other hand, USC plays decent defense and is allowing opponents to shoot just 41.1 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from the three point line. They take the air out of the ball - so would you if your team was shooting the way SC is - and that controlled pace combines with their hard working defense to hold opponents' shooting percentages well down below the opponents' season averages.
The Trojans get an average of 6.2 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Coach O'Neill makes effective halftime adjustments as the Trojans have scored 79 more points in the second halves of games than they have in the opening stanzas.
USC averages 53.9 points a game and surrenders an average of 55.9. They get out-rebounded by an average of 2.6 a game.
UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland has shortened his bench and narrowed in on his most effective combinations now that conference play is well underway. Moving Jerime Anderson to the point for the Bruins has freed Lazeric Jones to be more of an off-guard, finding his shots more easily and maximizing his basketball skills for the team. Sophomore Joshua Smith is finally getting into condition that, if not outstanding, at least is good enough now to allow him to start playing a bit of basketball.
The sophomore Wear twins (David Wear and Travis Wear) are working hard to improve their inside skills. Their hustle and effort add a dimension nearly completely missing at the start of the season. Tyler Lamb has emerged as a real force in the back court for the Bruins. Norman Powell is learning and showing more of his skills all the time. And substitute center Anthony Stover and forward Brendan Lane provide the front court backup and defensive skills that buttress the team.
You can't really say UCLA is a good basketball team at this point, not after wins over the two struggling Arizona schools in games played, if not actually at home, at least in Southern California as opposed to the Arizona desert. But you can say the team is much improved and figures to continue to get better as all the sophomores and the one freshman improve as the season goes along.
If the Bruins bring their best game, this one shouldn't be very close. Even though it's a rivalry game. Even though it's at the Galen Center with its restrictive attendance policies for visiting UCLA fans and spirit team members. Even though the overworked Trojans will have had a week to rest up and prepare for this game. But due to the fact USC can play good defense, at least it will be a good challenge and learning opportunity for them and, if the Bruins do not bring their best game, it could end up one of those games that make you scratch your head and ask yourself, 'how could that have happened?
Ted Bloom contributed to this story.