Result: Win, 72-63
Stats: 16 pts. (5-12 FG, 4-5 FT), 1 rebounds, 4 assists
It is always tempting to make far too much out of a high-profile upset in college basketball, particularly when the victor has been looking for a reason to feel good about itself while the hoopserati (Screw it, I’m making that up, just remember where you heard it first when Seth Davis is dropping it in March.) has been looking for chinks in the armor of the upsetee. So apparently we are finally seeing the true face of a burgeoning power in USC while UCLA couldn’t, in the words of my dad, “hit the broad side of a barn”. But as we sat watching that game, sandwiched between fat, alcoholic chainsmokers in a sportsbook in Reno, the fat, alcoholic, chainsmoking capitol of the West, we couldn’t help but think that if anything, this game confirmed what we have been saying about both teams all along.
Yes, USC finally looked like a team. Our man OJ was monk quiet in the first half before helping to lead the second half charge. Freshman-in-name-only Davon Jefferson was obviously the key to the game, a big man with too much athleticism for UCLA’s big men. Taj Gibson showed more than a pulse, while Daniel Hackett was almost unnoticeable, which, like an NHL defenseman, is one of the best things you can say about a college point guard. But the reason the Trojan win didn’t exactly shock as much as mildly surprise us is that their performance wasn’t entirely unexpected. We’ve been saying since we started the OJ watch that anything, ANYTHING, could happen with this team – they could go to the Final Four or they could incite an oncourt intra-squad brawl. The supposed dissing by Josh Shipp seems to have (some would say sadly) provided the long sought after motivation for the Trojans to finally play as a team. Not only did USC utilize its considerable athleticism to run the Bruins into the ground, they also played with the most purpose we’ve seen from them on the defensive end. And frankly none of this means shit to us, because even Sybil had her good days. So although the win Saturday was a nice confirmation of their potential, we don’t expect it’s the last we’ve heard of either the “What’s wrong with the sullen Trojans?” or “Athletic USC finally playing as a team” headlines.
As for the Bruins, the game was both an anomaly and an illustration of our worst fears. Although this was one of their poorer defensive efforts, it was bad shooting that did them in. Not all of that can be chalked up to USC’s defense. It wasn’t just Luc Mbah a Moute (an argument for coming out early if there ever was one) bruising the rim from outside, the Bruins missed a lot of easy shots inside. Just not their day? Well, yes and no. It’s doubtful UCLA will have another game where they misfire this badly, but they have not shown a great ability to put anyone away beyond the Portland, Youngstown, and Idaho States of the world. They still have done nothing to assuage our concern that the one thing they lack is a true offensive killer. Josh Shipp looks it at time, but he’s no Arron Afflalo let alone Reggie Miller. Kevin Love is the inside scorer Ben Howland has been looking for, but he was reduced to chucking up 3s at the end of Saturday’s game, which USC must have looked at as a late Christmas present. The Bruins fate as national champs may be determined by sophomore Russell Westbrook, who as the Bruins’ most athletic player has mixed in transcendent performances with wildly erratic ones, as witnessed by his 2-11 day against the Trojans. The funny thing is that there seems to be much less, if not any, slack cut for UCLA as their young stars (Love, Westbrook) continue to develop and blend in with the upperclassmen. Who knows, this very well could be a team whose best has yet to come.
The one conclusion that can be jumped to as a result of Saturday’s contest is that it may have been the watershed game in what is shaping up as the Year of the Junk Defense. Mad scientist Tim Floyd has led the charge, throwing out 1-3-1 and triangle-and-2 defenses to nearly topple Memphis State earlier in the season, a defense so effective that Bob Huggins took a break from his busy day of academic counseling to call Floyd and use it to beat Marquette. The junk defense seemed to confound UCLA at times on Saturday, but it remains to be seen what this all means. While some things in basketball just go in and out of style, up-tempo is the hottest style of play in the NBA but no one in college hoops even remotely resembles 1988 Loyola Marymount, the junk defense preys on teams who have only one or two offensive threats. Given that this pretty much describes most teams in the one-and-done era of college basketball, this may be just the beginning of the Age, rather than Year, of the Junk Defense. Still we doubt that its efficacy can persist through the latter stages of the Tournament, and by late March it will be as distant a memory as Clemson.