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USC-UCLA basketball showdown could be decided inside

Each team relies on two quality big men — Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson for the Bruins, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson for the Trojans. The team that wins those matchups figures to win Sunday's game.

January 08, 2011|By Baxter Holmes

Most basketball coaches pray for one, just one, grade-A big man

.

But if a coach has two, as UCLA's Ben Howland has in Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson and USC's Kevin O'Neill has in Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic, then consider that coach lucky because good big men are hard to find, harder to keep and even harder to stop.

Just ask Washington State Coach Ken Bone, whose Cougars recently visited Los Angeles and were feasted on by the L.A. schools' down-low duos.

The foursome scored 55 points, grabbed 38 rebounds and threw Bone two losses, which left him gushing, "They're very efficient, very good."

Sunday night at the Galen Center the four players will collide in the first of two matchups between UCLA (9-5, 1-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference) and USC (9-6, 1-1) this season, both of which could come down to post play.

"Me and Reeves versus those two, it's going to be a battle," said Smith, the Bruins' 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman center.

The matchup is intriguing on production alone.

The four have 22 double-doubles this season; the rest of the Pac-10, entering Saturday, had just 36. They also make up four of the league's top nine rebounders (including the top three), four of its top 20 shot-blockers, and four of its top-25 scorers.

And they do it in different ways.

Vucevic, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior from Montenegro, averages 15.9 points and 10 rebounds, is leading the Pac-10 in rebounding for the second straight season and leads the league in double-doubles (nine).

But his style fits the traditional European big-man mold, in that he prefers to play outside the lane, passing and shooting over shorter players.

Nelson, UCLA's 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore, averages 15 points and 8.1 rebounds, and will likely face Vucevic, whom he called "really skilled."

Howland agreed, saying, "I've said he's either the top player or one of the top two players in our league in terms of big guys for sure."

Likewise, Vucevic praised the versatility of Nelson, who can post up, push the ball in transition and shoot from outside.

Vucevic also admires Nelson, a heavily-tattooed Modesto native, for his grit: "He plays hard and he never quits."

Nelson is streaky, with strong games — he has twice been named Pac-10 player of the week — followed by no-shows, which is also true for Vucevic.

But while Nelson and Vucevic are new-age posts, their frontcourt fellows are more old-school, fit for bruising contact near the bucket.

Smith, UCLA's super-sized former McDonald's All-American, averages 10 points and 6.9 boards in 19.8 minutes, and few can match his size and strength.

The Washington native has struggled with conditioning and foul trouble, but he's still the front-runner for Pac-10 freshman of the year and a (literally) huge factor in UCLA's success.

"Big Josh, he's a load," said the man expected to guard him Sunday, Stepheson, a muscular 6-10, 250-pound senior.

Stepheson, an L.A. local from Harvard-Westlake High who began his college career at North Carolina before transferring, averages 10 points and 8.7 rebounds and uses his pogo-stick leaping ability to rebound and block shots.

He's been hindered by a fractured left hand for nearly the entire season, but doctors gave him an all-clear Wednesday.

All four said they're looking forward to Sunday, though none would say who has the edge in the matchups.

That's no surprise for two teams that hail from the same city, have five players apiece scoring in double digits, pride themselves on defense, nearly won at No. 3 Kansas and are considered strong contenders for a conference title.

USC has won three straight in the series, including a sweep last season, but it has almost no frontcourt depth, whereas UCLA has 6-foot-9 sophomore Brendan Lane, who ranks second in the Pac-10 with 23 blocks.

O'Neill, USC's coach, said both teams have played well lately, but that each has a lot to prove.

"The inside game," he said, "will decide a lot of the game."

A crosstown showdown determined by some of the West Coast's finest big men.

As Smith said, "It's going to be a lot of fun to see how it turns out."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.

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