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USC, UCLA have work to do

January 12, 2009|KURT STREETER

Since this contest featured L.A.'s two big universities, let's just say it was sort of like the first chemistry test of a new semester. The first chance to see whether all of the hard work -- the late nights spent studying, the boring lectures slogged through with the help of triple-shot lattes -- has been worth anything.

To bring this back to sports, Sunday night's game between USC and UCLA was the first chance to witness what kind of quality each team will put on the hardwood as the season pushes forward. Whether the Bruins, ranked 10th nationally and coming off a string of strong games, have truly bounced back from losing three of last season's best players to the NBA.

Whether USC -- smarting from the defection of the talented Mr. Mayo in a cloud of controversy, and also smarting from that most ugly of losses to Oregon State last week -- could play with one of the best.

The first half told us much about these two teams. In fact, it might have told us everything.

UCLA 33, USC 31.This was the score as both squads headed to their lockers at the half, the sellout crowd at Galen Center electrified. The score was utterly surprising.

Early on, after all, this game looked like a blowout. Like this would be Westwood exacting cold revenge for the embarrassing way the Trojans' football team tore through the Bruins at the Rose Bowl last month.

For the first few minutes after the opening tip, UCLA made a nice assortment of short jumpers and three pointers. Its guards and forwards drove confidently through the lane. The Bruins were crisp and confident and highly responsive to the deft maneuvering of their leader, Darren Collison, the All-American point guard who turned his back on the NBA draft after last season with hopes he could lead the Bruins to their fourth straight Final Four -- and maybe to the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, Tim Floyd's team looked as if it was still traumatized by last weekend's meltdown in Corvallis, a game in which the Trojans coughed up a fat lead and looked like they had no idea how to play basketball during that game's final minutes.

Those first few minutes, the Trojans were sloppy and tentative. It seemed as if their best player, Taj Gibson, was called for three quick fouls before anyone in the Galen Center could take a breath.

There was no reason to believe USC would be anywhere close to the Bruins at the half.

But with Gibson gone, his teammates proved to be a scrappy bunch; a group with enough intestinal fortitude to make this a tight game, with freshman forward DeMar DeRozan leading the way with an assortment of drives to the hoop and 11 points. For the Trojans, this was a scrum with forearm shivers, hard falls to the hardwood and Daniel Hackett jawing at his opponents before getting cracked in the jaw with a sharp elbow.

This will be the Trojans' way all year. They are light on overall talent.

The backcourt is a particular problem because after Hackett, who scored 13 points and had two assists, there's little to recommend. With a 1-2 record in the Pac-10, the Trojans must claw their way forward if they are to return to the NCAA tournament for the third year running.

The good thing for Trojans fans is that based on the heart they showed Sunday, there is no reason, even after a 64-60 heartbreaker, to think this cannot be done.

And what of UCLA? Well, more of the same in Westwood. As always under Ben Howland, the Bruins play hard-nosed defense. They contest every pass and always seem to turn their opponent's offense into a group of mushy freelancers. Wonderful stuff -- for the purists.

It's on offense, once again, that the Bruins struggle.

Flow? Continuity? Smoothness? I am sad to report that, once again, none of this is there, and Sunday's opening stanza underscores my point.

With USC on its heels early on, the Bruins should have stepped on the gas and gunned down the freeway, Floyd and Co. left in the dust. Howland's boys could do nothing to break away.

Like the Trojans, they have real fight but little beauty. Thus, it appears we have a Bruins team that plays exactly as they have during the entire Howland reign, only after losing Kevin Love and his merry mates, they are three notches less talented than last season.

Will the kind of performance these teams brought to Sunday's first test be good enough for them to reach their dreams -- UCLA to the Final Four again, USC a few rounds deep in the tournament? They've got a lot of improving to do, but the semester isn't over.

--

kurt.streeter.latimes.com

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