This is a big deal . . . within the comfy confines of Southern California.
UCLA and USC will go another round in their ongoing spat tonight in the Galen Center. Still, this installment seems to have been downgraded from the national stage from a year ago.
The Bruins (12-2 overall, 2-0 in Pacific 10 Conference play) come in ranked, as they were a year ago, though at No. 10 instead of No. 4. The Trojans (10-4, 1-1) are still a threat, as they were when they knocked off UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
Yet, something seems missing . . . oh yeah, freshmen standouts Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo.
"With Mayo and Love, we created some national interest," USC Coach Tim Floyd said. "Both were on the cover of national magazines in the preseason. Both games were on [national television]. They both had been publicized in such a big way since they were in the ninth grade."
Love and Mayo are plying their trade in the NBA these days. They have been replaced by new top freshmen, USC's DeMar DeRozan and UCLA's Jrue Holiday, yet Floyd said, "There hasn't been much talk about them."
Floyd still hopes the UCLA-USC game will become a national basketball holiday, something approaching the level of Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Louisville.
"That was our dream when we got here," said Floyd, who is 2-5 against UCLA since becoming the Trojans' coach. "The onus is on us because Duke, North Carolina and UCLA have been powerhouses for a long time. We have to be the ones to show we are there. Back-to-back NCAA tournament [appearances] has helped. If we fall back this year, it certainly won't help us achieve that goal."
Give me a 'D' . . .
All season, UCLA Coach Ben Howland has pestered his players about working harder on defense. The Bruins are giving up only 58.2 points a game, but the goal is to limit opponents to less than 40% shooting from the field and, so far, they have fallen several percentage points short of that magic number.
So when the UCLA coach peers across town, he sees past USC's upset loss to Oregon State and finds something to admire. Perhaps envy.
Not only do the Trojans have the Pac-10's best shot-blocker in Taj Gibson and leading stealer in Daniel Hackett, they also rank second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense at -- you guessed it -- 39%
"Defense is one thing I always look at," Howland said. "I think they are very underrated."
Floyd sees things from a different perspective.
"We're going to have to match their defense and match their effort," Floyd said. "We have to get back on defense. This is their best perimeter team, so we have to recover to their shooters."
One out of two
UCLA guard Malcolm Lee has taken another step toward returning from a knee injury, but the news wasn't as good for another freshman, J'mison Morgan.
Lee was listed as probable for tonight's game after increasing the intensity of his workouts each day last week, Howland said. He has been sidelined since injuring his left knee after a strong performance against Wyoming in late December.
Morgan, a 6-foot-10 center whose play has been limited, did not practice last week and was listed as doubtful.
USC's inside game will again be without power forward Leonard Washington, who will sit out a fourth consecutive game because of a high ankle sprain.
The Trojans had a plus-10 rebound advantage over opponents in their first 11 games. They have a plus-three edge since Washington has been out.
Tonight's game at the Galen Center is sold out. Capacity is 10,258.