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USC's Kevin O'Neill has edge over UCLA's Ben Howland in matchups

His Trojans beat Bruins for third straight time since he was hired, and physical defense and bigger will to win makes the difference. He knows rivalries are cyclical but important to team psyche.

January 10, 2011|By Baxter Holmes

On Sunday, USC's Kevin O'Neill earned something of a hat trick.

His Trojans beat crosstown rival UCLA, 63-52, for the third straight time since he was hired as USC's men's basketball coach in 2009.

While O'Neill won't downplay his recent success against UCLA and Bruins Coach Ben Howland, he won't say he has Howland's number, either.

"No, I don't think that at all," O'Neill said Monday. "I would never be crazy enough to think that."

O'Neill's head-to-head record against Howland is 3-2 overall, the losses coming when he was Arizona's interim head coach in the 2007-08 season.

Then, Howland's Bruins, which featured future NBA players such as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison, beat Arizona by 22 at Pauley Pavilion and by two in Tucson.

"That was a great, great team," O'Neill said.

The same cannot be said for Howland's current team, which is coming off a losing season and has no seniors on its roster.

Conversely, USC isn't in the best shape either, having lost five recruits from its 2009 recruiting class and three senior starters from last season. It's also on NCAA-mandated probation until 2014 and is one season removed from a postseason ban.

Before Sunday, the teams had nearly identical records marked with embarrassing losses, upsets over ranked teams and nail-biting thrillers at Kansas that came down to the end.

Further, each offered lineups with five players scoring in double digits, a top-notch inside duo, freshmen at key positions and two defensive-minded coaches.

UCLA led by two at halftime, but USC controlled the second half and beat the Bruins for the fourth straight time.

Howland praised USC's inside players after the game and also credited O'Neill, saying, "He's done a great job."

O'Neill shrugged off the idea that he has an edge over Howland and said success in rivalries is often cyclical and that UCLA is struggling now because of its youth.

But like Howland, O'Neill's trademark is a physical defense, and the Trojans have fared better in that category, holding the Bruins to an average of 57.3 points in their last three meetings.

And in each of the wins, it wasn't just USC's defense that made the difference. The Trojans simply played as if they wanted it more.

Part of that is O'Neill's ability to motivate his players, said former USC Coach Bob Boyd, whose 13-year run (1967-79) as the Trojans coach was overshadowed by UCLA's dynasty under John Wooden.

"He doesn't think he can't beat anybody," Boyd said. "He really doesn't. And he conveys that to his players."

Junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who has played in all three of O'Neill's wins against UCLA and scored a game-high 20 points Sunday, agreed. ""He always tells us we don't know how good we can be and that if we play hard and play good defense, we can beat anybody," Vucevic said.

UCLA isn't just anybody. O'Neill knows that.

"When you beat UCLA, you've beaten tradition," he said Sunday night.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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