Tick-tock, tick-tock . . .
By Coach Kevin O'Neill's count, USC has about 14 hours of basketball left -- seven games at about two hours each -- a figure he can state with confidence because of the university's self-imposed ban on postseason play this year stemming from past indiscretions that neither he nor his players had anything to do with.
Which is not to say they're not important hours. In fact, the two it will spend playing UCLA on Sunday are arguably USC's biggest this season.
There's the chance to sweep the Bruins for the first time since 2003-04.
There's the chance, after three losses, to beat UCLA for the first time at the Galen Center since it opened in the 2006-07 season.
There's the chance to keep pace with California, which sits atop the Pacific 10 Conference standings with an 8-4 league record. (USC and UCLA are each 1 1/2 games back of the Golden Bears, who host Washington State on Saturday.)
Plus, it just might give O'Neill, who is still new in town, some momentum in recruiting.
"I think it's of the utmost importance," O'Neill said. "It's not just another game. It never will be. USC and UCLA is like Marquette-Wisconsin, like Duke-North Carolina. Those are the kind of rivalries you have, and we're in the same city."
Add historical vengeance to the game as well, because the Trojans earlier this season routed the Bruins by 21 points -- their biggest win over UCLA since 1945.
"I'm sure they're going to come ready to play, especially after the way things went at their place," USC guard Mike Gerrity said. "They want to get a win and even it out, but we're going to be just as ready as we were in the first game."
O'Neill expects UCLA's best, though he was taken aback by comments earlier in the week by the Bruins' Tyler Honeycutt that, "We're going to try to show them we can play with them."
Said O'Neill: "We're certainly not sitting here saying, 'Oh, we beat them by 20, it's going to be an easy game.' "
Man of action
Forward Leonard Washington hasn't said much off the court since he imposed a personal "lifetime" ban on speaking to the media -- for reasons unknown.
Yet, the brutish sophomore got O'Neill talking after he provided clutch baskets off the bench in USC's close wins over California and Stanford.
In those games, Washington totaled 15 points, nine rebounds, two blocks -- and several plays that weren't accounted for in the box score: a key block-out on a rebound; providing help defense when teammates got beat; making a quick outlet pass to start a fastbreak.
"Leonard has been as big a part of all our wins -- in different ways, in smaller ways, or less noticeable ways -- as anybody on our team," O'Neill said.
Washington was academically ineligible for the first half of the season.
"That would be a wake-up call for anybody, and he's responded very well," O'Neill said.
In a zone
Several Pac-10 teams, including UCLA, have migrated from the conference's mainstay man-to-man defense to various forms of zone defense this season.
O'Neill believes in man-to-man, so his team has only dabbled in zone. But he admits that a good zone can be difficult to score against.
"If we shoot it well, we'll have a chance," he said. "We've struggled against zone, as everybody has, so hopefully we can generate some offense off our defense."